Medecins Sans Frontieres staff transport the body of an Ebola victim in Guinea. Photo: Getty.
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A few things that are much scarier than Ebola

When it comes to public health, we're often afraid of the wrong things - and this can have truly nasty side-effects.

We are all terrible at judging risk. Most people are more scared of plane travel than cars, even though in the UK we have only a one in 44,135 chance of dying in the former compared to a one in 240 lifetime chance of a fatal car accident. Sharks scare us more than mosquitos, but the latter kill around 725,000 people a year – by transmitting malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever – while there are only around ten fatal shark attacks annually. Most women fear the stranger in a dark alley, but on average two women a week are killed by their current or former partner – domestic violence, not random attacks, is by far the greater danger and a leading cause of death for young women in Britain.

Jaws-style scenarios, plane crashes and axe murderers evoke such an emotional reaction that we tend to over-estimate the risk of them happening. Ebola falls into a similar category. It is a scary, dangerous disease: there is no known cure and it is a terrible way to die. The death toll has reached over 1,000, making it the most deadly outbreak of the disease since it was discovered in the 1970s. At its most virulent, 90 per cent of infected patients die - the death rate for this current outbreak is around 60 per cent.

If you’re a health worker in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, three hotspots for the virus, work really has become more dangerous. Thankfully ebola doesn’t spread through the air, but it is transmitted via contact with bodily fluids and so those treating victims are vulnerable. But, if you’re living in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, three countries with weak and under-developed healthcare systems and high poverty rates, Ebola is one of many immediate and very real health risks.

In June and July, around 5,000 women and children in Sierra Leone died of diseases that were largely preventable – deaths that didn’t make international headlines. As a Liberian woman you face a one in 24 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. Sierra Leone has the highest rates of under-five mortality in the world, with Unicef estimating that 182 in 1,000 children won’t reach their fifth birthday. The leading causes of infant death in the country are malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea. As James Ball points out in the Guardian, since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people are likely to have died of malaria. 

In some ways, it’s good that Ebola is so feared. Fear is a powerful motivator. It might have prompted the notoriously slow-moving WHO to declare this outbreak an international emergency, and to fast-track the use of experimental new drugs. The World Bank has pledged $200m to help fight the disease, although the Sierra Leonean president called on more help from the financial community. This international effort – as well as the actions of national governments to improve public awareness and introduce travel restrictions – will undoubtedly make it easier to contain the spread of the virus, making it much less scary than it could be.

But the fear surrounding Ebola also creates new problems. People in affected countries have become so fearful of local medical centres that they are not seeking treatment for illnesses such as malaria and diarrhoea, and so are more likely to die of these illnesses. The head of the WHO, Margaret Chan, has said that the actual Ebola death rate is likely to be higher than reported because the "fear factor" leads to denial or reticence. One writer described how, after returning to the UK from Nigeria, (where there had, at the time, been only one case of the disease) her midwife refused to see her in case she was infected. The midwife directed the writer to her GP surgery instead, which seems illogical.

And while an individual’s inaccurate perception of risk can have nasty consequences, it’s much worse when policymaking is affected. If only we could generate the same international excitement around other diseases. 350,000 women die in childbirth or pregnancy each year, but the UN is failing to meet its maternal health targets. 627,000 people died of malaria in 2012, but the Global Fund reported that funding for malaria was only half of what is needed. 1.6 million people died of AIDS-related illness in 2012, but UNAIDS argue that HIV/AIDS charities are still under-resourced. Sometimes it might help if we were a little more afraid of the very real risk that the gains we have made in reducing maternal mortality, HIV transmission and malaria deaths will be reversed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

kerim44 at Wikimedia Commons
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Xenophobic graffiti at a London Polish centre is a dark sign of post-Brexit Britain

The centre's chairwoman says an incident of this kind has never happened before, and police are treating it as a hate crime. 

Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London's leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint. 

“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I'll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”

The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public's decision on Friday to leave the European Union. 

Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”. 

For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens. 

Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it's obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.

She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.” 

When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”

Beyond Hammersmith

Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike. 

Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:

Facebook users have also collated reports in an album titled Worrying Signs:

Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.

HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.

The group notes that the referendum, cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.

 

Update 28/6: 

The National Police Chief's council has now released figures on the spike in hate crime reports following the referendum. Between Thursday and Sunday, 85 reports were sent to True Vision, a police-funded crime reporting service. During the same period four weeks ago, only 54 were sent - which constitutes a rise of 57 per cent. 

In a statement, Mark Hamilton, Assistant Chief Constable for the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Hate Crime, said police are "monitoring the situation closely". 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.