Back from my travels, I lifted my jet-lagged head off the pillow at 5 am. Needing coffee (as I always do upon rising), I zipped down to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts shop for a medium hazelnut (hot, cream no sugar) and a couple of Old-Fashioned (plain) doughnuts—breakfast of champions. These are the fleeting moments I permit myself to listen to NPR.
A reporter from Sierra Leone described the hell that is the Ebola outbreak there. Sensing that this story might be free of slander toward Israel (though you can never be certain), I listened on. Damned if I didn’t learn something.
The audio/transcript won’t be online for a few hours yet, but the reporter called in with a similar take yesterday:
NPR’s Jason Beaubien is in Sierra Leone, covering the Ebola outbreak that began in March in Guinea and has spread to neighboring countries. We’ll be speaking with him throughout the week about what he’s seeing on the ground. Today he’s in Kailahun, the largest town in the country’s eastern province, with a population of about 18,000, and the epicenter of Sierra Leone’s outbreak. In the past week, Doctors Without Borders staff in Kailahun have treated more than 70 patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
When we called, Beaubien was with a team driving to the treatment center to pick up the body of a 70-year-old woman who died of Ebola. Burial was scheduled for this afternoon.
What will happen at the burial?
The Ministry of Health is handing over body management to the Red Cross. This is one of the first bodies they’re going out to do, so there’s a whole bunch of people [who will be at the burial]. It may turn into a bit of a mob scene. And there’s a lot of anger in the community; there’s a potential that family members might not be happy that such a large group of people are showing up at the burial.
That’s where this morning’s story picked up the trail. The poor woman who died wanted only to be buried behind her simple house. Her son had dug her grave. Before her body arrived, however, the “mob” filled in the grave, in the presence of the regional chief, who forbid the burial of an infected body so near other people. Bury it deep in the bush, he counseled, where it won’t infect the drinking water.
Was he right? Can ebola (which is transmitted by bodily fluids) seep out of a body bag (two, out of an abundance of caution) and into the water table, infecting whole towns? I certainly don’t know.
But doesn’t this sound eerily similar to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s? An unknown disease that seemed to effect only intravenous drug users, homosexuals, and Haitians with terrifying afflictions, before the inevitable death. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with that. We shunned, we turned our backs, we kept our hands in our pockets.
As who would not?
Ebola spreads by contact with bodily fluids. What precautions are people taking?
People have been told not to shake hands. But this is West Africa. People usually grab your hand in both their hands and don’t let go, especially someone who really wants to engage with you. It’s very hard for people not to shake hands. You go into an office, and people have their hands in their pockets just to keep from pulling them out and shaking hands.
America needs no remind of its shortcomings. Slavery, Jim Crow, mistreatment of native peoples, homophobia—ours is not a spotless record. But that doesn’t make America racist, genocidal, or otherwise intolerant, it makes us human. If these Sierra Leone villagers succumb to panic—from one of their own, one whom must have been known by all—they are only human too.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is playing in London at the moment (to excellent reviews). Miller’s merciless tale of the Salem witch trials is universally seen as an allegory for the anti-red witch hunts of his own time. But would the “brave”, “heroic” Mr. Miller have the nerve to set a modern Crucible on West Africa?
I don’t think so, either.