Dr. Joia Mukharjee says racism is to blame for the slow response to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and other African countries. Mukharjee is a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief medical officer at the Boston based non-profit Partners in Health.
According to PRI (Public Radio International), Mukharjee said: “I think it’s easy for the world — the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color — to ignore the suffering of poor, black people.”
It’s difficult to see what she’s talking about when most (all?) of the volunteers who go over there to help are white. The two American doctors who almost died from Ebola were both Caucasian. And only the white western world is sending any help.
Perhaps the lady has never been to Liberia.
Thirty years ago, I used to visit Liberia regularly, where I took care of a congregation.
Liberia is an interesting country. It was founded by African-Americans, freed American slaves, who were returning to Africa in the early years of the nineteenth century. They were part of the “Back to Africa” movement. They called their country Liberia, meaning freedom. Their capital was named after the American president at the time, Monrovia.
Until 1980 the descendants of the original eleven families who settled there, ruled the country. 95% of the population was native African, members of local tribes. It was a unique colonial situation, where both the rulers and the ruled were black.
When the natives finally overthrew their oppressors, it was really bloody, leading eventually to ethnic conflict between the tribes. Visiting Liberia became very unpleasant and dangerous.
It’s safer now but still has serious problems.
Liberia did not receive any of the benefits of colonialism because it was not part of a European empire. Its infrastructure and health care are very limited. At the time I was going there, only 5% of the people were literate, the lowest rate in Africa.
Ignorance and superstition play a major role in prolonging the Ebola outbreak. This is not unique to Ebola – AIDS is very similar. In Europe, so was the Black Death in the fourteenth century.
Health workers have been attacked in West Africa, as people blame them for the spread of the disease. Eight health workers were murdered in neighboring Guinea a few days ago. Their attackers thought they were spreading the disease.
When victims are quickly buried to stop the spread of Ebola, they are often dug up again by relatives anxious to put them through traditional burial rites. Again, this aids the spread of the potentially fatal illness.
Western missionaries and medical volunteers are also suspect. It’s inconceivable to the local people that anybody would risk their own lives to help them, so they are often accused of being CIA. They also risk being labeled “racist” when they clearly are not, or they wouldn’t be over there in the first place.
Here’s another way we can help. I’ve spent months in the hospital this year. About half of the doctors and nurses working in the two hospitals are from overseas. They come from poorer countries to better themselves. But they are desperately needed in the countries they came from. We need to look at this and see what we can do to help countries like Liberia fight outbreaks like Ebola using the talents of their own people.