The missing link in the fight against Ebola

Understanding the challenges of the Ebola crisis through the eyes of anthropologists

Est. reading time: 2 minutes

In a recent report, NPR featured a story about the missing link in the fight against Ebola: anthropologists.

At a time when even military forces are deployed on the ground to support the fight against Ebola, anthropologists are still struggling to get recognition of their own important contribution.

“Any situations of infectious contagion are highly social. It’s an incredibly intimate process, and anthropology is a science of intimacy, of intimate connections,” said Ann Kelly, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, in the NPR-interview.

There are numerous fears and culturally specific ideas involved in the interactions between people in Ebola-affected countries. And this is not only about stopping to shake hands. Anthropologists’ contribution to understanding the social and cultural implications of Ebola is particularly essential when it comes to local rituals and practices, such as funerals. The burial ceremonies have been changed for reasons of hygiene, but anthropologists have tried to reconcile this need with local culture.

We have to understand that these changes disrupt the social fabric of tradition and kinship, wrote Kelly in an article she co-authored with colleagues on The article further says:

For the communities with whom we spoke, death is a journey, and for this journey one needs to be equipped with materials such as clothes that need to be washed and ironed before the coffin is closed. Critically, the dead person can also transport things for others in the afterworld. Attending a burial, even entering into physical contact with the dead body, is seen as an obligation not only to the living, but also to previously deceased kin.

The local population has reacted to these changes too, as some residents in Liberia, the country with the most deaths from the disease, have reportedly tried to hide sick relatives in homes and churches.

Photo credits: ©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser; republished under CCs license

Photo credits: ©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser; republished under CCs license

The local population has also become suspicious of aid workers themselves, a reaction that has not always been understood the right way.

“I think people know that health care workers are dying and sick, so the prospect of being taken into a health facility is probably quite scary,” Kelly told NPR. Understanding such responses as rational and justified scepticism would already be a first step towards building bridges between the important work of health care and the local population, she added.


Social anthropologist and journalist with a focus on urban issues, displacement and mobility in the Middle East.


Did you enjoy reading this? Share it with your social network.

1 Comment

  1. The helpless reactions of local and international government to the ebola outbreak heap even more tragedy on this catastrophy that already defies description.

    There is much more that critical anthropology can and should do. It should speak often and loudly about the systemic reasons for epidemics.

    Epidemics are NOT brought about by the pathogenes alone. Pathogenes have always existed and wil always exist, but only rarely they evolve into a dangerous epedemic, the reasons for that are well known.

    Pathogenes need the social conditions to thrive and evolve to a genetic population that is capable of waging the destruction of an outbrake of of this magnitude.

    These Exerpts are from a talk by Rogert G. Wallace (Institute for Global Studies U. o. Minesota)

    “Pathogens routinely trace society’s inequalities and expropriations like water traces cracks in ice… Ebola represents such a case. The shifts in land use in the Guinean region where the new strain apparently emerged are connected to the kinds of neoliberal structural adjustments that, alongside divesting public health infrastructure, open domestic food production to global circuits of capital… [The corporate agribusiness land acquisitions in Africa] are markers of a complex policy-driven faith change in agroecology…that undergirds Ebola’s emergence here.” says Wallace

    He concludes his lecture:
    “…commoditizing the forest and neoliberal dispossession may have lowered the region’s ecosystemic threshold to a point that no emergency intervention can drive the pathogen population low enough to burn out on its own. The pathogen will continue to circulate with the potential to explode. In short, neoliberalism’s shifts aren’t just a background upon which such emergencies take place. It is the emergency as much as the virus itself. And history has demonstrated this time and again. Faith changes and social organization, for better and for worse, change epidemiologies. Domesticated livestock served as sources for human diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, plague, pertussis, rotavirus, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, etc. Ecological changes brought about upon landscapes by human intervention selected for spill-overs of cholera from algae, malaria from birds, and dengue fever and yellow fever from wild primates… We can pretend otherwise for Ebola, but in protecting the rationals for institutions and policies that likely brought about such outbreaks, if as byproducts of a greater economy alone, we will surely only compound the problem. If not by Ebola this year, then perhaps something else next.”


    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *