Week 2 – Jan. 13 – The Political Economy of Disease in Africa: From AIDS to Ebola

I appreciate that the opening discussion for a course entitled Africa in A Changing World, begins with a topic that is commonly misinterpreted as characteristic of and mundane in the continent of Africa, and that happens to be of pressing global status in recent months. The pandemics of HIV/AIDS and the Ebola virus, both supposedly originating in parts of Africa, were the subjects of the readings this week, however the presentation of these topics of Sub-Saharan African disease was appreciatively far from typical.

After watching the film “Ebola War: Nurses of Gulu” and baring cinematographic witness to the death of health care workers and mysterious proliferation of Ebola in Gulu, Uganda, one can argue that all of Abramowitz, Saéz, Kelly, and Brown’s arguments are difficult to contest. This is because had the theories of these authors, who are anthropologists, been put to the test in Gulu in 2000, it is likely that the right kind of anthropological aid could have halted the spread of Ebola throughout the hospital of Gulu and appropriately corrected the community members’ misconceptions about the nature and origins of the disease, ultimately reducing panic and fine-tuning accurate diagnosis’ for example, making the response to the disease more effective. Conversely, I found it quite ironic that an American anthropologist such as Abramowitz was so adamant about the capacity of foreign anthropologists to effectively help in the fight against Ebola, disregarding the past, current and potential efforts of local African anthropologists to do the same work. Her list of tens things did seem a little stretched at certain points, but her and the other authors’ arguments for the need of the presence of a diversity of professionals to combat a pandemic such as Ebola, was valid overall.

The social science perspective used in Burchardt, Patterson, and Rasmussen analysis of HIV/AIDS in Africa was elementary in its’ generalization of the entire continent and its’ remarks that social movement discourse is likely too Western of a concept to be applied to African contexts. While it is true that clearly defining collective identities in some religiously-charged African states may be challenging, it is historically-ignorant to assume that social mobilization is too advanced an idea to be examined in neo-colonial African states. What was a related, compelling sub-argument however, was that the professionalism which results from political and social mobilization can infiltrate and jeopardize the religious foundations of certain localized AIDS-relief initiatives. Yes, most African countries do suffer from political drawbacks like neo-patrimonial systems, other forms of corruption, and “extraversion” in the words of Bayart (1993), as do most post-colonial developing countries in the Global South, and I regret to once again have to make this critique of academic journal article on African studies, but this is not a problem that is uniform and salient throughout the entire continent. This can be taken as naïve, but it was mentioned in the Burchardt, Patterson, and Rasmussen article: perhaps instead of dwelling on never-ending questions of the perfect methodological ingredients, the answer to Polletta and Jasper (2001)’s question of collective (religious and non-religious) identity lies in affected Africans prioritizing “compassion and shared humanity” as motivations for mobilizations to combat the spread of disease in Africa.

Further discussion:

  1. At what point does combating “the simple narratives that blame the epidemic on local people” become equally or almost as urgent as combating the epidemic itself?
  2. What can be said about the future of anthropology in the field of global health if in modern times, professionals like Abramowitz, Saéz, Kelly, and Brown are forced to publish articles on their intended plans to aid in the fight against an African epidemic, instead of on the actual execution of these plans?

More food-for-thought regarding the necessity for the presence of anthropologists on the scene. One of the discovering doctors of the Ebola virus admits to faults/delays in realizing facts that ethnographic work could certainly have concluded in a more timely manner:

“How Ebola Was Discovered”



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