While the Ebola outbreak continues, media coverage, at least on television, seems to be waning. Print media continue to provide stories that enlarge understanding about how the crisis is being managed and its effects on people across the region. But this too will fade, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.
In this crisis, a familiar pattern of media coverage has emerged: Ebola has been presented as a mysterious viral disease with a horrific reputation. An outbreak is news. Blogger Michael Byrne, whose blog influenced the title of this post, attributes the mystery to the fact that the virus occurs in remote Africa and not in countries with facilities to provide the supportive care necessary for the body to rally its own protective measures. It’s there, not here, and it’s horrific. That’s sensational.
But once the sensational elements have been covered, unless a new angle appears, the media moves on. And the suffering continues out of sight.
Ebola, malaria, cholera and many other diseases that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions are diseases of poverty. Whether the disease is borne by a virus or a parasite, the common vector is poverty.
Profits, neglect and the value of life
Diseases of poverty occur in places where life expectancy is already low and well-being already compromised by inadequate health care, sanitation and economic development. They are in locations where communication and education are weak. And these conditions are long-term, ongoing results of poverty.
In addition, more than one commentator has noted that research and development of drugs to prevent and treat Ebola lags because there is little profit in saving the lives of poor people in rural Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has three doctors per 100,00 population, Liberia one per 86,275, Guinea one per 10,000 and Nigeria one per 2,879 people. Pharmaceuticals and health care follow the money.
Beyond this neglect, corruption, poor governance and wars have kept these countries from building strong economies with an informed citizenry. And, as blogger Lindsay Hilsum writes after decades of development schemes poverty persists.
This makes it more important to tell the story of people in these circumstances as well as address the conditions that persist and affect their quality of life. Otherwise, they will continue to be overlooked until another crisis strikes.
But in the 21st century, it may be even more critical to build the communication infrastructure that will enable people to gain access to information they need to improve their own lives and to communicate with each other and the outside world.
Combating information poverty
The Ebola crisis demonstrates that information poverty is a significant contributor to the spread of infectious diseases that can destroy whole communities. It points to the need to strengthen educational systems as well as national health systems. And it points to the necessity of major international organizations and partner governments to push for accountable governance and an end to corrupt practices.
At United Methodist Communications, we are providing skills training as we introduce technology after assessing needs with local partners. Technologies can be as complex as servers and wifi systems or as simple as solar chargers for mobile phones. The technology must fit the day-to-day realities of climate, environment, power source and maintenance. But these are not insurmountable problems. The key is skills training and appropriate solutions for long-standing problems of info poverty.
Ebola is neither mysterious nor inevitable. With information, adequate facilities and procedures, it, along with the other diseases of poverty, can be contained if not eradicated.
The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.