Ebola, -isms and dialogue

This story doesn’t really fit with the series on Ebola science (new one of those almost ready to roll), but it got me thinking, and I wanted to give my thoughts a chance to breathe.  Hope it’s of interest.

A couple of weeks ago, Anthony England (from the UK) posted a picture of Africa and where the current major Ebola outbreak is occurring, to highlight the situation of Susan Sherman, a Kentucky teacher who had been working in Kenya, but whose school was sufficiently concerned about her potential exposure to Ebola that it asked her to stay away from work for 21 days. She resigned, apparently due to feeling an absence of trust and respect.

The picture above, and the subsequent sales of t-shirts containing the image (for the benefit of the Ebola response effort), did not go down well in West Africa.  In the context of travel and visa bans for citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the local response campaign of “I am a Liberian, not a virus“, such a visual appeared tar whole countries with a single brush.  An adjusted version of the image was suggested by Cédric Moro:

Reading the twitter conversation between England and Moro, it was clear that no such message was intended, and England has subsequently clarified his image to make a more nuance point:

My first reaction to this narrative was that it represented twitter at its best: the rapid dissemination of efforts to improve knowledge (by both parties), the overcoming of an initial unintended consequence, and progress to a better final outcome.  Synthesis, growth, happiness, etc. But then I can be a crazy optimist like that.

However, a second important point occurred to me subsequently while reading about #shirtgate (follow this link with care, many trigger warnings) this week.  A short version of the tale: scientist working on the Rosetta project comet landing wears a shirt made by a (female) friend to help promote her products, which offends many, he apologises profusely the next day.  Reading a blogpost in another context, I was reminded of “unexamined decisions”, how as someone not directly impacted by many of society’s -isms, it is easy not to see how your actions might be seen, or what unintended consequences might arise.  In the context of the Ebola outbreak, there is now clearly “ebolaism” at play, which builds clearly on existing stereotypes regarding race, poverty and “exotic” groups (i.e. those not like me).  Which reminded me of the importance of community engagement in the research field I work in (social determinants of health): how preconceptions and post-conceptions of the researcher need to be passed back past the groups under study, to see if our impressions are correct.  As an external researcher, I should always assume that I am missing some meaning in the data I am analysing, and seeking to understand these lacunae.  And this goes for all of us working on Ebola, for sure.

As Bob Hoskins/British Telecom once said, it’s good to talk.

P.S. If you are interested in thinking deeply about research engagement, I can strongly suggest the work of Heather Lanthorn, for example see this recent post.


One thought on “Ebola, -isms and dialogue

  1. Thanks kindly. We have some soon-to-be-(good)-news from Tamale in terms of telling the survey staff about the results and asking them to share with some of the ACT vendors. Three years later but hopefully will do some good vis-a-vis the kind of resistance we initially encountered amongst vendors who had been asked many times to participate in studies but had never seen any outcomes from the same.


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