The Role of History and Mistrust in West Africa's Ebola Crisis

September 24, 2014

“I remember getting up in the morning, looking at one of the daily newspapers, and seeing the headline, ‘Ebola in Town,’” says Gregg Mitman, recalling the day he discovered the outbreak had reached Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. “It was definitely a cause for concern.”

Mitman is a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He recently spent three weeks in Liberia, just as international attention over the virus was escalating. He believes the fear surrounding the disease, both in Africa and the West, has deep historical ties.

Medical professionals aren't always trusted by West Africans, Mitman says. In fact, in the early days of the most recent Ebola outbreak, people attacked some health workers that were treating patients. Mitman says that some of that distrust stems from a long history of Western medical research in the region, dating back to a 1926 Harvard medical expedition sponsored by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

“As this Harvard team of doctors and scientists moved through the landscape, they took biological samples — tumors, blood, and parasites. They also tested experimental drugs on [Liberians],” says Mitman, who’s working on a documentary about the expedition. “And that kind of history continued on.”

You can hear our conversation with him, or listen below for the full interview with Gregg Mitman on the history of Western biomedical research in Liberia, the impact it has had in the country, and how he believes international NGOs should respond to the crisis.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Gregg Mitman On...

Western media coverage of Ebola

One of the things that the Western media quickly seized upon -- when it became an international story -- was the attack on health care workers by West Africans... The Western media was attributing this to irrationality and superstition, and I think there’s a complicated set of circumstances that led to those initial reactions that speaks to a history of Western biomedical research in West Africa.

Biomedical research in Liberia

In the 1940s and 1950s, Liberia was one of the first places where experiments were done using DDT for malaria eradication. So, widespread massive sprayings of DDT through the area to try to control malaria. In the 1970s, there was a lot of work going on there on Hepatitis A and B vaccine research. So part of the suspicion of healthcare workers initially, certainly, was connected to that long history of biomedical research and extraction that goes back in Liberia’s past.

Mistrusting the government

[There] was a sense among certain parts of the population of disbelief, that Ebola wasn’t real...  There’s a level of mistrust of government going back to the Civil War, and there were reports that this was a scam for the government to get more outside money. So there were certain elements of disbelief -- I wouldn’t say it was widespread, but certainly there were rumors like that.

Western ideas about West Africa

[Western fears about diseases spreading from Africa] have a long history going back to the 18th century, thinking about equatorial Africa and West Africa as the white man’s grave and a place where disease lurks.

The other thing that we see in the disaster response is a kind of movement in, address the crisis, and then pull out, and then what’s left? It’s going to be people that are there for the long haul that are really going to be committed to finally address the public health infrastructure in places like Liberia, and begin to see that you cannot have development without public health. That’s the kind of attention that’s going to be needed.