Week Two: The Narrative of Disease and Critique

I found this week’s readings interesting, as they are topics that most North American Arts students would be in the very least, vaguely familiar with. When people in the West speak about Africa, more often than not the narrative of disease is included in their discussions. Even a casual afternoon of television is rarely presented without commercial breaks airing pleading World Vision commercials featuring children orphaned by disease, usually from African nations. However, these commercials and these narratives play into the idea of a “single story” as discussed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in week one. Though disease does present itself in African nations, as it does in all other nations on earth, there are often complicated social, political and economic forces influencing outbreak. As the readings discuss, this is exactly the case with both HIV/AIDS and the recent Ebola crisis.

In the article “Ten Things Anthropologists Can Do to Help Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic” I felt that the author Sharon Abramowitz did a good job in establishing many of the ways in which anthropologists could help fight Ebola. Additionally, the author helped identify many of the key social challenges regarding burial practices which hindered quarantine efforts essential to fighting the disease. In many cases I heard that extraction teams were attacked by families in attempts to keep their loved one’s body with them. The lack of understanding between health care professionals and the local population created great rifts and slowed the response to the epidemic. Both Abramowitz and Saez, Kelly & Brown identify that understanding burial rituals were essential to curbing the outbreak but also calming hysteria. Therefore, the importance of anthropologists in these kinds of situations can clearly be understood.

However, I found that Abramowitz’s critique of MSF in this time of crisis was misplaced. Though anthropologists could have been of great benefit, they may also have been a great liability. At a time where beds could not be built for the sick fast enough, and the dying were laying at the gates to MSF facilities waiting for there to be enough room to be allowed in; it is understandable that the organization would be hesitant to take on personnel who were yet untrained to deal with an outbreak of that magnitude. Individuals without specific kinds of medical training would be putting not only themselves, but also others at risk. Though anthropologists had very valuable knowledge and could make a valid contribution, at that point in time fighting the epidemic did seem to be more like stomping out a wild brush fire.

The video “Ebola War: The Nurses of Gulu” really illustrates that in these cases of disease outbreak, the doctors and nurses are not the individuals to be heavily criticizing. Though critique is necessary for improvement, I believe it is important to note that crises like these can push the limits of what health care professionals can handle. The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, similar to the one in the Gulu, claimed many nurses and doctors’ lives. Social stigma, illness, quarantine, and physical attack were the price many of these doctors had to pay for their work. Though anthropologists may not be allowed on the scene yet, I think it is important to remember there are many dimensions to this outbreak and it may be a matter of learning how to safely work this area of academia into disease control.

1) How is an intricate understanding of local culture fundamental for developing a Public Health campaign against disease?

2) How can religion and spiritual belief effect a person’s choice towards treatment? In what situations is it appropriate for Public Health to supersede these beliefs?


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