Spread risk: a Monrovia classroom serves as a rudimentary isolation ward. Photo: John Moore/Getty
Show Hide image

West Africa on a hope and a prayer: the desperate efforts to contain ebola

The 16 August attack on an ebola clinic in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, is a sign of just how deeply western medicine is mistrusted.

Ebola, a virus with a 60-90 per cent death rate, has already killed at least 1,145 people in West Africa. There is no cure, which adds to the rising sense of fear in the affected countries and their close neighbours. There have been no confirmed cases yet in Gambia, but on crowded buses, crackling radio reports relay the latest death toll, a constant reminder that the threat is not far from home.

Having spread from a single Guinean village across swaths of Liberia and Sierra Leone and into Nigeria, this outbreak is the deadliest to date. There is little trust in doctors, a by-product of local traditions and popular reliance on faith healers. After months of bad news, many people lack hope.

The disease was first detected in February and was declared a Liberian national “public health emergency” by the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in June. In early August, the World Bank pledged $200m to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, and the UK offered a further £3m in aid. Yet the death toll continues to mount.

The 16 August attack on an ebola clinic in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, is a sign of just how deeply western medicine is mistrusted. It is hard to convince people to put their faith in new medicine when it can offer no cure.

The fragile economies and weak infrastructure of many countries in the subregion also limit their ability to manage the disease. On average, West African states spend $100 per capita on health care each year – nothing compared to the $3,600 per person in Britain.

The slow response by affected governments hasn’t helped. Kudzi Makopa, a student volunteer from London, flew to Sierra Leone in late May. “When we arrived there, the disease was the subject of jokes among the general public and there was even a comedy film on the matter being sold nationwide,” he told me. “No one really believed ebola was happening because they’d never seen it, and they thought that witch doctors or God would send it away.” Today, posters and billboards line the streets of the capital, Freetown, reading “Ebola is real”, but perhaps it is too late.

In Liberia, experts called in by the government insisted that the first wave of a disease is often less destructive than those that follow, which arguably made the country’s response slower than it might have been. “We were acting appropriately. But because of weak health systems, the disease spread, and now we are responding again,” Tolbert Nyenswah, an assistant minister in Liberia’s health department told me.

Gambia risks making some of the same mistakes. Despite its proximity to the epidemic, few plans have been put in place to combat the virus. There is no sign of the ebola isolation facility that was due to be set up months ago, and testing for the disease is not available in the country.

At the Medical Research Council in Fajara, on Gambia’s Atlantic coast, doctors are disappointed that promises of resources have not been met. Outside the hospital, crowds of patients, including rows of mothers cradling malnourished babies in their colourful wraps, sit waiting on benches in the heat. Should an ebola victim be treated inside, these walk-in patients would be turned away. Doctors say people are turning to prayer to deter the virus.

West African countries have tightened their border controls, but the World Health Organisation has said that official figures may “vastly underestimate” the spread of the virus, making it harder to contain. Despite the international attention, the measures in place to combat ebola are inadequate. It feels as though people are still waiting for some intervention, whether governmental or divine, to end this crisis. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.