Ebola, this frightening viral disease has become the crisis of today, not only in West Africa, but globally. The capacity of the disease to spread fast and to kill fast is terrifying. The way the disease kills, bleeding its victim to death is petrifying. It’s the type of disease that brings out the worst in the African. It dramatizes the ignorance and persistent belief in pagan precepts in our society. From January to March, the disease spread through the forest zone in southern Guinea before it was diagnosed. Victims were assumed to have had spiritual attacks and were taken from one witch doctor to another spreading the disease through person-to-person transmission.
When the disease was diagnosed in March as Ebola, its main source in the Guinea forest zone was also identified, the fruit bat. There was an information campaign to get people to temporarily stop eating fruit bats and other types of bush meat such as rodents, monkeys and forest antelopes in the initial epicenter of the epidemic in the area around area around Guéckédou in southern Guinea. The people refused arguing that they have been eating their bush meat for centuries without problem. The authorities and aid groups were accused of trying to ban the tradition of the people. Of course things were not helped by the fact that animal husbandry is not widespread in southern Guinea and bush meat is widely available and cheap and has been the main source of protein for centuries. The problem in the eyes of the people in the forest was not their delicious bats but the health workers who were giving them what they considered to be the wrong message.
Things soon got worse when politics entered the equation. Rumours suddenly emerged that President Alpha Conde had invented Ebola as a strategy to avoid or postpone next year’s elections, which many people think the cannot win. The health minister, Colonel Rémy Lamah tried in vain to convince people that the Government had no interest in inventing such a terrible disease that kills so many people. The rumours persisted.
From the politicians, focus returned to health workers. The new narrative that emerged was that health workers were coming to infect people with the disease, the proof was that many of the health workers themselves were dying. I cannot imagine a worst scenario for health workers who were knowingly putting their lives at risk to help people and then they became the accused. Communities started arranging vigilantes to either chase out health workers or stop them coming into their areas. Some health workers were killed and now health workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone cannot go into communities with Ebola infections with armed soldiers or policemen protecting them. Communities also stopped reporting cases to the authorities and many infected people in isolation escaped back into their communities. Of course carrying infected people to witch doctors and spiritual healers continued to facilitate the spread of the disease.
Trust has collapsed between the governments of the three countries and their communities or villages. There is urgent need to work on the sociology, the anthropology, and the communication strategy that will get people to understand the disease for what it is. It is necessary to explain the epidemiological facts in ways that can break down the resistance of belief in evil spirits and witchcraft. God help Nigeria, within weeks of the arrival of the disease and its spread from a single source, more people have died from ingesting salt to prevent the disease than from the disease itself. This credulity that will lead educated and intelligent people to pump salt into their bodies without advice from any medical personnel is very frightening. People were called at 2 p.m. and told to drink salt and bath with it and they did.
We have seen how fast the disease can spread in Nigeria. Should we follow the path of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in taking infected people to witch doctors, prophets and spiritualists, we are going to have one of the most devastating epidemics in world history. Following the appeal by the Nigerian authorities to some key miracle healers not to allow cases to be brought to their churches, some of them are responding by sending holy water out to the victims. This Saturday, prophet T. B. Joshua sent out an airplane load of 4,000 bottles of holy water to Ebola patients in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This move will only reinforce the pagan belief that the Ebola disease is caused by spiritual attacks and witchcraft.
We need to call for a national moratorium on all spiritual, miracle, holy water treatment of the disease and place emphasis on the simple issues of avoiding contact with body fluids of infected people, confining and isolating infected people and allowing medical personnel do their work. Poor knowledge, credulity and superstition are the key vectors that led to the rapid growth of the Ebola epidemic. The continuation of cross-border movement – across countries, states, local governments and communities coupled with our very poor public health infrastructure could make Ebola decimate us as a people. The material problems are so serious and difficult that we must leave the spirits out of the equation.
Dangers of the Militarisation of Elections
One of the challenges that have arisen in terms of culture of elections has been the increasing tendency of the Federal Government to militarise the electoral environment by the massive deployment of security agencies, including the military, to intimidate the electorate and the opposition. In the Ekiti elections, 30,000 security personnel were deployed. From the reports on the Osun elections over the weekend, the number of security personnel was hiked to 70,000. In addition to militarisation, the police and the SSS have been acting in a blatantly partisan manner arresting key members of the campaign organisation and field mobilisers of the opposition APC party with a clear objective of disrupting final arrangements for encouraging party faithfulls to go out and vote. Meanwhile, no arrests of PDP campaign staff are made. This is a dangerous development that must be contested and stopped. Elections are conceived as the highest form of civic and civil democratic engagement and the militarisation of elections erodes it of its credibility. Democratic forces must engage in an immediate campaign towards the INEC, legislature, the judiciary and the general public to stop the militarisation of elections. Congratulations to APC for winning the Osun elections in spite of the massive security deployed there to intimidate them The troops should now be redeployed from Osun to the North East to fight the terrorists and to #BringBackOurGirls.
Dr. Ibrahim, a development consultant and senior fellow of the Centre for Development and Democracy in Abuja is Chairman of the PREMIUM TIMES editorial board. He writes a Monday column from Abuja where he resides.