Ebola: What we did not hear about enough from the ground

Ebola: What we did not hear about enough from the ground
Ebola: What we did not hear about enough from the ground
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Geneva, May 17, 2015 

They were not allowed to perform the last rites for their family members who were brought to the special centres from where “death squads” took over. They never saw their dead relatives again. There was no communication, people just disappeared.  Panic set it. Something bad was happening. Hundreds of people from Europe and USA arrived to help, but people, especially affected communities and people on the ground did not know what was going on. Frightened and isolated, they buried their dead in the darkness and silence of the night.

Ebola is most contagious when people die of it. That is how infection spread.  

Death squads were part of rumours floated by politicians and they spread far and wide. In Sierra Leone and Liberia – two of the three worst-affected contries along with Guinea – rumours had it that politicians were picking up entire communities belonging to opposite camps and taking them to special centres where they were administered a lethal injection.

Jennifer Bakayama is part of a health journalists’ network in Uganda. She trains journalists and encourages pharmacists and medical professionals to share information with communities.  She talks of how when there is an outbreak like Ebola, the first thing officials want to do is bury their heads in sand or spread rumours. She travelled to Guinea and other countries in West Africa where the Ebola virus outbreak which killed 6000 people was called the worst in human history by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The World Bank estimates that the economic impact in West Africa could be as high as $25.2 billion in lost gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014-2015.

While the major headlines reported cases in Spain, Italy and the United States, the midnight burials by a frightened people continued unreported. We do not know enough about their trauma or what the communities felt or how they could have helped. In fact we know nothing and our response, or rather lack of it to the Ebola tragedy is a collective failure of the international community. The failure to tell a story to a people directly affected is the under-reported underbelly of the world of public health.

“When people found that no one was listening to their pleas and no efforts were being made to explain to them what was going on, they started moving away from these centres from where these ‘death squads’ would take dead people away,” Bakayama tells The News Minute (TNM).  In one country, the government had to take the decision to cremate the dead contrary to the practice of burying them.

We are meeting in a room a few hundred metres away from where the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s apex body will meet to talk about the main health issues that plague the world. For a week beginning Monday, health ministers from over 195 counties, industry leaders, society groups and academics will decide what is important and what is not, where funds are needed and where they can wait. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will address the gathering. India will be in the chair after a gap of 19 years. This gathering of health professionals is as important as the Super Bowl in America or IPL in India except that no one hears about it.

We are a group of journalists and public health workers, doctors and civil society groups trying to see how the two worlds – public health and media – can speak to each other in an atmosphere of trust and mutual support.  The initiative which brings in reporters from around the world focusses on Africa this year and we have a small grant from the Swiss government.  Dr. Franklin Apfel a former colleague from the WHO and I launched it in 2012 adding to the work of the World Health Editors Network (WHEN) that Dr. Apfel has put together with Mike Jempson of Mediawise in the United Kingdom (UK).

“There is a lot of money in public health, but patients and people who are sick and dying are not the main beneficiaries. In my country, people go to hospitals to die,” says Elizabeth Tlalampe Lediga, a reporter from the Channel Africa Radio of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

The discussions get animated. Ethics, climate change, fake drugs, corruption, health systems, GMOs, mothers, children, water, food, HIV/AIDS, access are all discussed with examples from Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda. Our colleagues from Africa tell us they got the clear message that the entire international effort to deal with Ebola was to ensure that the three countries are isolated and people remain “there” and go no further. I was in a phone-in press conference with United Nations (UN) agency where a top diplomat argued about which agency should play the lead role in dealing with the problem or in other words, who gets the credit to contain the outbreak.  Coordination is a multi-faceted web that UN agencies get into when there is an international health emergency – it is a territorial fight. The disease and death toll can wait.

Somebody around the table says he wants to follow the Ebola debate which is a special agenda item at this meeting. There is news of a new Ebola vaccine. What will it cost, where will it be delivered? Why is there no vaccine for Malaria and the new strain in Tuberculosis which kills one person every two minutes or 750 people daily?  We will be looking for answers in the hope that they will be forthcoming, sooner rather than later.

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