Attacking Humanitarians: Ebola and the breakdown of social accommodations over burials in Guinea

4 December 2015, 17:00 - 18:30

SG1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge

Public talk by Professor James Fairhead (University of Sussex). Free and open to all.

Attacking Humanitarians: Ebola and the breakdown of social accommodations over burials, political subjection, and economic appropriation in the Republic of Guinea

Abstract

As the Ebola crisis became ‘exponential’ in September 2014, a delegation of senior politicians, doctors, NGO staff and journalists were attacked during a visit to Districts in the Forest Region of Guinea whilst informing communities about Ebola. Eight were murdered. This paper seeks to understand the fear that many Guineans felt towards Ebola response initiatives and why the educators, treatment centres and burial teams regularly encountered resistance, occasionally violent. Such resistance and the distrust behind it was catastrophic not only for attackers and attacked alike, but also for the epidemic, as early in the epidemic it undermined health communication, the isolation of the ill, safe burials, contact tracing and quarantine early on, and so facilitated its spread.

Why were humanitarian workers often greeted in this way? What mistakes were being made in their community relations?  Explanations at the intersection of local and humanitarian ‘culture’ and ‘structural violence’ certainly help, but this talk seeks answers in the particular way that the disease and humanitarian response unsettled three precarious social ‘accommodations’ that had become established in the region - between the existing burial practices and hospital medicine, between local political structures and external political subjection, and between mining/conservation interests, and those whose lands they work. Ebola - as a disease and social phenomenon -  disrupted these established but precarious accommodations that had hitherto enabled radically different and massively unequal worlds to coexist. 

This public talk is part of the Corpses, Burials and Infection conference, 4-5 December 2015.