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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