Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ebola and a politicised media: hindrance or help?

We’ve noted in previous articles that the situation in Sierra Leone has been exacerbated by the lack of clear health information circulating through both domestic and international media. Now that the situation has matured, the information has levelled somewhat. However, we would still like to address several points of contention regarding Ebola contagion, as well as highlight how misinformation, sensationalism, and selective reporting worsens both the situation in the affected areas and the international response to it.
EducAid is an information institution. Our guiding principle is that education is essential to unlocking human potential; overcoming poverty; improving wellbeing; and building democracy – education is the cornerstone of stable development. We are perpetually concerned with how our immediate actions will benefit Sierra Leone in the long-term. We do not suggest that there is a coordinated campaign of misinformation, although in some cases that we’ll highlight there certainly is a certifiable effort, more that the reactionary media coverage of the Ebola outbreak has hindered, rather than helped, the containment of this ferocious virus.

How Fiction becomes Fact

The Western reaction to the Ebola crisis is something that we will cover in more detail later in our blog. For now, we’ll touch on how the media coverage has informed the reaction of the international community, and how some of the resulting governmental decisions could have been better channelled.
There has been an obvious spike in Western media documentary on Ebola as the threat has moved closer to home: the case of Ebola in the United States marked an escalation in both media coverage and support to end the crisis. Monitoring the global media, as I have been doing for the past months, has highlighted particular traits in the way that this story has been covered. It has raised some larger questions regarding the way in which the media creates the national conscious, and to which the government responds. In a world where terror poses the greatest threat to national security, the lexicon of mainstream journalism and politics have deliberately coalesced to create a sense of fear. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Advisor, describes in a Washington Post article this political practice that we can see applied to the accompanying media:
“Constant reference to a "war on terror" did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”[1]
As with any extended exposure to forms of language or extreme ideas, the general public becomes desensitized to less sensational forms. Unsurprisingly then, this language has been harnessed in to the political discourse over the Ebola outbreak. Barack Obama said to both the UN, and in a White House address, that Ebola was now a global security threat, and urged greater international assistance. We can see Obama resorting to these tactics of fear to justify his sending of 3,000 troops and $170 million in to West Africa. In order to achieve his package of aid, he has had to frame the situation so that it poses a threat to the mainland of the United States. Whether we look at this as pragmatism or manipulation, it is undeniable that it has artificially raised the perceived risk of Ebola within that country. Although the UK has a more moderate media, we are also very exposed to the American media and the stories almost inevitable trickle through to the UK’s general consciousness.
It is crucial also to note the political period that we are in. Both the US and Britain have upcoming mid-term and general elections, and not taking a stance against a supposed international threat, particularly considering the media attention and public concern surrounding it, could be interpreted as weakness. This politicised and media-hyped domestic fear has forced the hand of the U.S. president and the UK government. In addition to the international response that these countries have provided, the proposed ‘national security threat’ that Ebola poses has forced both countries to implement Ebola screening at a number of airports and train stations. An Economist article surmises the emotion-fuelled response of the American government.
 “America’s debate on Ebola is, or should be, an argument about the best use of the country’s formidable resources. Namely, is it safer to pursue hermetic isolation from the world; or (counter-intuitively) is it less risky for America to fight Ebola with a strategy of controlled openness, leading a global fight to beat the virus at its source, while trusting experts to prevent an American outbreak with painstaking health-checks at airports and hospitals?”[2]
In order to evaluate the net impact of the politicised media documentary, we should begin with the efficacy of the introduced measures: will Ebola screening at international airports stop the spread of the Virus to the West? In a word: no. The well-documented incubation period of up to 21 days has been a matter of much debate – and one where misinformation is rife. Ebola is not contagious during the incubation period, only when a person is visibly sick or symptomatic with Ebola do they become infectious. Armed with this knowledge we can quickly see that the chance of an infected individual developing symptoms during the international flight – between the screenings in Western Africa and the screenings at their destination – is highly unlikely. In fact, Britain's chief medical officer, Sally Davies, said after the screening measures were announced: "I would expect a handful of cases in the next few months.”[3]
This question is one that we should be asking of our own government; why is the UK spending a reported £9 million[4] on Ebola screening at airports? It is indeed true that the government has pledged a £125 million which includes engineering and healthcare personnel from the military forces, but with the UN $1 billion fund at only around 1%, why do we feel that this money would not be better spent elsewhere.
In addition, the discussion that we need to have with ourselves is whether the political establishment is the appropriate agent to be making decisions regarding the channelling of aid. With the inherently political agenda, is it appropriate for these bodies to be deciding which areas of the aid process are most advantageous for the recipient community? This is a big question for another time, but it is one that we should consider when we tell ourselves that the UK government is doing their bit on our behalf. We must ensure that the right initiatives are getting the right support.
There has been a definite lack of discussion, or apparent preparation, for the period after Ebola. With increasing civil unrest in Sierra Leone, industry and commerce grinding to a halt, and the stigmatisation of Western African countries in general, the economy of the country is under great strain. There is a deep division between the local population and the government for perceived inaction at the beginning of the outbreak, and there will be tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives to Ebola. Behind each faceless death that we read about in the papers, there is a husband, a wife, a father, or a mother. What preparations are there in place to ensure that this health epidemic doesn’t become a humanitarian crisis of greater proportions? We can tell you about what we are doing, and we will do so over the coming weeks and months. If you would like to make a valuable contribution to Sierra Leone’s future – not just the crisis management that dominate the media – but the prosperous, developmental, independent future of Sierra Leone after Ebola, please support us. Our innovative distance-learning programs are in development as we speak, and we’ll be distributing them to our students that do not live with us. Also, we are preparing to take the burden of as many Ebola-affected families as possible, particularly those orphans of Ebola who have no-one else to depend on.
We are preparing for life #AfterEbola, and we need your help.
Please donate to support our cause on MyDonate.
Continue to follow us on our Blog, and show your support using the hashtag #AfterEbola on Facebook, Twitter.

For a brilliant summary of the American media circus surrounding Ebola watch this video: FOX News, such an unlikely source!

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