Ebola – the Caste and the Outcaste by John Uwa

This article examines the recent discovery of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Nigeria, the wave of anxiety and panic that the disease sent to the nooks and crannies of the country, the media frenzy it generated*, government and public swift response and the emergence of a new social ambience that may be akin to alienation. The Ebola epidemic, particularly in Nigeria, is so hyped so that for a moment the Federal government of Nigeria was able to ventilate the heated tension provoked by the kidnapping of over 200 school girls in Chibok, Borno state, by the dreaded Boko Haram sect. This is because there is a total shift of media attention from the kidnapped girls to the Ebola virus disease. Even important visits of those who had planned to come into Nigeria had to be rescheduled, except for few instances where travellers were armed with sufficient information. This reinforces a prominent clause in one of the interviews I conducted where it is said that, “bad news is good news”.

140916-ebola-mn-730_5faf8a75b9c9625e4c3552e128106b71The news of the Ebola disease is given so much prominence by the media such that one may assume that it will be unprofitable to explain that there are five known types of the Ebola haemorrhagic strains, which includes the Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Tai Forest strains. The deadliest among these being the Zairian strain which was the one the late Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer ‘imported’ into Nigeria and subsequently infected his medical attendants and a few other contacts. Some of the victims had passed on, while others have survived the infection caused by the virus, even without the controversial test drugs.

Today, Nigeria has been declared as Ebola-free country by World Health Organisation; many thanks to the Government and people of Nigeria who were unrelenting in their fight to nip the spread of the dreaded disease in the bud. However, much remain to be learnt in the aftermath of the outbreak. When sometimes in August, the news got about publicly that Nigeria has recorded its first case of the disease, everyone saw the next person as a potential threat. This was mainly because it was the first time the disease will be reported in an urban centre, like Lagos which is the second largest city in terms of population in a country of about a hundred and seventy million people.

The media intensified the issue when its earliest reports of the outbreak were centred on the harrowing effects of the disease rather than revealing ways by which it can be contained. In fact, the initial assumption was that the disease cannot be prevented. Once this was reported, ‘hopefuls’ started readjusting their life styles. No more handshakes, no hugs, and no familiarity. Even health workers reneged on their statutory obligation by refusing to treat patients with common cold, malaria fever, weakness and other Ebola related symptoms, which may not be as a result of the Ebola virus. It was even speculated that some persons may have died out of neglect. The frenzy was so much that even those who have common cold and fever are compelled to conceal it for fear of being stigmatised. From nowhere, text messages went viral telling friends and loved ones to bath and drink salt water to prevent the Ebola virus. A few days after this, some national dailies reported that a couple of individuals have passed on due to salt related complications. It was only after the states and Federal Government of Nigeria embarked on sensitization campaign that people realised that the virus may be prevented by simple personal and environmental hygiene like washing of hands with detergents and running water, thorough bathing and the use of hand sanitizers.

Another disturbing story is the eyewitness account of those who survived the attack. It was reported that the much-hyped quarantine centres, especially that of Lagos is some abandoned dilapidated building with very sub-human care. The imaginative picture created by the eye witness account only meant one thing; and that is, the last moments of our fallen heroes could not have been more horrifying (as least for those who didn’t make it alive). The word “heroes” is used here to suggest that that if they were not brave enough to turn themselves up for quarantine in spite of stigmatisation, the case would have been more tragic as it has been elsewhere. However, when one considers the huge effort put in place by the Nigerian government, it may be easy to accept the fact that the initial treatment of the index/primary cases was only a proof that it took the country by some surprise and tested the level of its readiness and response. Be that as it may, it must be noted that battles are won only by those who are battle- ready.

As Nigerians continue to grapple with the reality of Ebola in their mist, the thought that a certain “madman” may have ‘intentionally’ imported it to Nigeria, did not go well with some Nigerians. So it came as no surprise when it was reported that a certain Liberian woman hanged herself due to the stigmatization resulting from general assumption that she may be carrying the virus.** The report has it that, the refusals of her immediate neighbours to talk to and to allow her buy or engage in social activities led to her alienation and eventual suicide.

In faraway Heathrow Airport in the U.K was another lesson from the Ebola virus. An associate of mine who went to the UK had an experience which may interest us. In the rush to fight the Ebola Virus, a particular state government in Nigeria contacted a U.K-based medical consultant to help them procure reliable hand sanitizers and dispensers. When the deal was completed, they requested that someone comes over to take inventory of the product, safe delivery and cost maximisation. This fellow was mandated and mobilized to go the UK, pick the products and return immediately. When the immigration officials realised that this particular Nigerian was only coming to spend just one day in the UK, they subjected him to further probing; and when they realised that he only came to pick up sanitizers as an emergency preventive measure for Ebola, he was asked if he had had any contact with an Ebola victim and was subsequently detained. The U.K-based consultant, who was also at the airport, was contacted, and after a few investigations by immigration officials in the UK, the young man was allowed to go.

This situation reminds me of a popular joke rendered by a certain Nigerian Stand-up comedian who joked that he was subjected to all manner of security checks at Heathrow Airport because he only went there to spend one day. According to him, the immigration officers at the port of entry find it almost impossible to believe that a Nigerian will only travel to the U.K just to spend one day. However, when they found nothing incriminating in him, they were compelled to ask him, – “please what is really your mission in the U.K?”, and he replied, “you should have saved you and me this trouble by asking this question a long time. I only came to the U.K to charge my dead GSM batteries”. Even if this joke is quite humorous and spontaneous in wit, it has a far-reaching implication for perceptions and conceptions. The realistic account of this joke reinforces this fact.

Photo credit: (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Back to the issue of response, it can safely be argued that Nigerians responded well to the sanitary advice from the relevant authorities. However, the outbreak may be considered as some kind of blessing in disguise. This is so because it helped to improve the sanitary standard and awareness of Nigerians. Unlike elsewhere in Africa where the Ebola virus is still considered as a myth by some group of people, Nigerians have recognised the reality on ground and responded appropriately. Even if some of these responses are really crude, they show a strong determination for survival. For the first time, it seems, Nigerians started washing their hands frequently, insisting on sanitary recommendations in public places and going about with sanitizers.

The sales of sanitizers are now, more than ever before, a thriving business. Moreover, exploitative monopolists have also taken to the streets and other market places- selling all manner of sanitizers for twice the original amount. A more convincing proof of response to the Ebola Virus Disease was the drastic drop in sales of ‘bush meat’ and other cooked food sold in public places. Banks, schools, mosques and churches have strategically mounted sanitary materials and digital temperature recorder within their premises.

What we have seen so far has been a very impressive response. However, it must be observed that alienation and stigmatization are monsters that are potent enough to wreak havoc in equal measure as the Ebola Disease. The psychological consequences of alienation and stigmatisation can cause a strain in the thriving relationship among people. What must be considered in all of these is that those who disseminate and duplicate information should take cognisance of those who constitute media consumers and interpretive community.


Ebola: 20 Hospitalised for Excessive Salt Consumption in Punch, 9 August 2014, by Jude Owuamanam
Fear of Ebola virus Grips Lagosians in The Guardian, 31 July 2014 by Bertram Nwannekanma

Liberian Woman Found Hanging in Lagos Suburb in Punch, 12 September 2014, by Olaleye Aluko


About the author: John Uwa is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communication. John’s based in Lagos, has an MA in English Literature and speaks Yoruba, English and Pidgin.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

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One comment on “Ebola – the Caste and the Outcaste by John Uwa
  1. Job says:

    Thank you John Uwa for this very interesting article on Ebola in Nigeria. In my country (Kenya), Ebola is still a myth. I am not sure how it would be if Ebola would strike in Nairobi. In a country where a handshake is such an important gesture, it would take time for citizens to adjust. The perception by Kenyan men that carrying hand sanitizer is a lady’s thing would leave them in a very awkward situation. We pray that Ebola doesn’t hit Kenya.

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