In West Africa some blame Ebola on the medical staff that have come to help. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Red Cross has been “forced to suspend activities in southeast Guinea after its health workers were surrounded by a group of men with knives, threatened, and blamed for causing the disease.”
The UN news service quotes a health worker in the country: “we were told that if we don’t leave we would be cut into pieces and our flesh thrown into the water.”
In Liberia, Redemption Hospital was, the Telegraph reports, “stoned by a mob after a woman died in there from a suspected Ebola case, following nationwide rumours that health workers were themselves passing on the disease.” The hospital had to be shut down due to fears about staff safety.
Others deny that the disease even exists. Asked why the government would lie about Ebola, a Liberian journalist tells Vice “apparently it’s a scam to get some money from the international community.” In Sierra Leone thousands of people marched to an Ebola clinic and threatened to set it on fire and remove patients after a former nurse claimed the disease was “unreal and a gimmick aimed at carrying out cannibalistic rituals”.
This denial of medical science is not entirely surprising to those who keep a close watch or the continent. The leader of the Gambia, the self-titled Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahaya Abdul Aziz Jamus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen, once invented his own herbal ‘cure’ for HIV. In South Africa too, a herbal mixture known as ubhejane received backing from influential political figures such as the country’s health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and provincial health officials in KwaZulu-Natal. Nelson Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki was sceptical that HIV caused AIDS. He instead blamed AIDS on poverty and embraced an industrial solvent with no medicinal value as a cure. Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang described anti-retroviral drugs as toxic and poison.
According to IRIN News, “The country’s politicians, particularly health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, have long supported the need for ‘African solutions’ to the AIDS problem.” Tshabalala-Msimang became known as Dr. Beetroot for her promotion of the vegetable, along with lemons, garlic and olive oil, as treatments for AIDS. When Michael Specter of the New Yorker asked South Africa’s Director-General of Health, Thami Mseleku “whether merit might help decide whether a medical treatment was valuable” and suggested “training—as a doctor, for instance, rather than as a truck driver—would serve as a better guide to who should practice medicine” Mseleku replied “That is because you come from the West, with one perspective. And you think it’s the only perspective one can have. But in South Africa we are more open than that.” According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, over 330,000 people died unnecessarily in South Africa due to the government’s failure to use antiretroviral drugs. According to the study, 35,000 extra babies were born with the HIV virus due to the government’s restriction of the drug nevirapine, which prevents transmission from mother to child.
In Congo, sleeping sickness had been almost brought to an end by the Belgian colonial administration. Now it is back. In The DRC, South Sudan, Chad and other afflicted African countries, the symptoms are blamed on evil spirits. A report by Doctors Without Borders quotes a Congolese woman: “Superstition replaced medical knowledge.”