When taking a retrospective look at the Ebola crisis of 2014, it becomes clear that the securitised response to Ebola was a deliberate effort to alter the status of the disease; a form of strategy designed to change the way we responded to it. Strategies of this type have historically been shown to monopolise government activities, spread (largely unfounded) fear and detrimentally impact the movement of people and money within the economy. Panic reactions have the potential to fuel discrimination and separatist practices, and unfortunately the response to Ebola did just that, with a focus on containment as opposed to prevention. That is, securing the West as opposed to addressing the problem in its source region. Fear was endemic, misguided and thus magnified.
A careful monitoring of military actions and impact would be pertinent. There are inherent challenges associated with addressing a human security issue through a traditional military security paradigm. In the case of Ebola, attempts to elevate the gravity of the threat within Western discourse failed to produce positive effects at the epicentre of the virus. A lack of recognition of the role of traditional practices such as washing the bodies of the dead, and large scale public gatherings in spreading the disease signalled a fundamental divide between governments and their populations. It has now been suggested that around 60% of Ebola deaths can be attributed to these risk factors that remained unidentified at the time. These conclusions can be retrospectively applied to the emerging Zika virus crisis; behavioural changes at community level will be a key way to control the disease.
The use of quarantine in the case of Ebola was highly damaging; the fact that limits were only partially reinforced created a false sense of security which encouraged those not within quarantine areas to travel, even though they may have already been infected with the virus. The disjointed and selective attempts at quarantine also led to an increased risk of public disorder. Policy makers would be well advised to recognise this when developing their response to the South American crisis. The WHO should be careful however to avoid an overzealous response to a crisis similar to the one which earnt it widespread criticism last year, in an effort to prove capability. A key difference in the two diseases is that Zika is not spread from person to person, as with the case of Ebola- instead, mosquitos act as a third party carrier. Thus, the fear of person, of each other and of particular groups will not be as pronounced as with Ebola, though links to travel and trade will inevitably be under the spotlight. Marcelo Castro, newly appointed health minister for Brazil, has been accused of putting out a ‘fatalistic’ dialogue when addressing the disease; it would be useful for the administration to recognise that this form of discourse was highly damaging during the Ebola outbreak- a consistent and calm narrative would serve the situation much more effectively.
The Ebola crisis also unmasked a worrying lack of preparedness in dealing with a global health crisis. The fact that repeated warnings from MSF were overlooked by the WHO, then once recognised followed by a series of somewhat chaotic funding appeals show a lack of leadership and decisive action. The response was disjointed and unfocused. The narrative surrounding Ebola drew on the popular and historical presentation of Africa as a region of disease, poverty and war. There is a risk that representations of Zika may draw on the same flawed stereotype, one which skews response to disease by suggesting it is only the reserve of the poor. It is important to focus on combating the virus at its source, as opposed to galvanising fear of compromised borders and global infection. Undue focus on one disease historically has the detrimental impact of increasing risk in other medical areas; that is, a flash of panic about one disease diverts research and funding away from others, and overwhelms specialist clinics rendering them non-functional. One wonders also about the financial impact of the disease; the share price of Inovio, a consortium claiming to have a vaccine ready for emergency use before year end, has risen by over 15% this week. There is not currently enough information to indicate for certain the impact of the disease, but the fact that it is currently thought to be spread through mosquito bites is likely to be a key focus of risk analysis. Inbound travel will be a cause for concern, especially surrounding large scale events such as the summer Olympics; the WHO has determined that the disease is likely to spread to the entirety of the Americas, bar Canada and Chile. A co-ordinated approach is needed- unilateral action by individual countries with regard to trade and travel restrictions will fracture response and likely cause a high degree of damage to Brazil’s economy. Early warning and careful response, not panic politics, will be the way to meet Zika.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.