Inside the news machine, we love Ebola. What it does – as well as kill people in an especially unpleasant way – is keep us busy, keep the conference calls open, keep the story moving, keep the people who run the company interested. And that’s what work is, reporting a major, breaking, disaster story. Ebola is certainly that. It began as something like the Dustin Hoffman film Outbreak, and that’s good, but what we want is for it to become Captain Trips. Captain Trips, in Stephen King’s book The Stand, is a weaponised version of the common cold, military-engineered for maximum lethality. It travels by air from person to person, cannot be treated, and in not very long at all kills most of the world. So a Captain Trips, but a localised version of it. Contained.
This most recent Ebola outbreak had killed, as of mid-September 2014, when newsroom excitement, if not disease virulence, was on its way to peaking, about 2,500 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Or, as they have become collectively known for ease of presentation, “West Africa”. But they aren’t the only places in the west of Africa. You might or might not know someone from any of these countries, but everyone knows a Nigerian. So when Ebola got into Lagos – Nigeria’s monster city, with a population close to that of the three other countries combined – we started to get really excited. Here comes Captain Trips. Desk jockeys in newsrooms across Europe and America got onto it: instantly they retweeted the latest World Health Organisation updates, then fired off anxious group-email messages: this doesn't look good guys...
Guys, come on. What it looks is great.
For a big news organisation, Ebola is in many ways a perfect story to cover. There's no complex political background that needs explaining, no tricky religious or ethnic elements to be navigated with caution, and most news consumers already have a basic level of cognisance of at least some of its components. Sierra Leone and Liberia mean warlords, blood diamonds and child soldiers; Ebola has for years been a byword for A Horrible Disease. Simple, but wholly understandable, and exactly the level at which most mainstream news is pitched. These parts of the world are still, even to smart people with international perspectives, pretty niche. So the key message of it is easy to get across: In some places you don’t want to go to anyway, there is an outbreak of a very bad thing that kills lots of people, and does it in a seriously grotesque manner.
Once the story is cranked into life, there’s so much it has to give. Daily updates (deaths, confirmed cases, suspected cases, geographical spread city by city, county to county) from national health ministries, supplemented by regular bulletins from the WHO and the big medical charities, give it an automatic refresh. Then there are all sorts of fun things to tack onto it. Survivor stories are a special favourite, notably the American or British health workers whose agencies and governments can and do airlift them out. Foreign companies pulling their workers home. Companies toiling in obscurity over experimental drugs suddenly find themselves fielding calls from reporters. States of emergency declared. Schools closed, election timetables questioned. Grim projections about how much damage will be done to “the economy,” as though it were something separate from the people who live, work, don’t work, eat, starve, spend, save and die in it. Mining and crop-growing projects endangered. Sports tournaments cancelled. The silliest over-reactions – the South Korean airline that stopped flying to Nairobi, 3,300 miles and 10 border crossings from Monrovia a good example of them – give it a particular kick. The international reaction is especially important because Ebola, as a world news story, exists in near-complete isolation from its national and regional contexts.
Nigeria turned out to be, for a couple of months at least, a global locus of fear if not of the disease. By the time the WHO declared the country Ebola-free in October, seven people had died of the virus. Seven people, in a country of something like 160 million. Four people died when they subjected themselves to one of the especially mean-minded "cures" propagated by a radio station, involving drinking large quantities of salt water. In other news around that time, at least 100 died when a church run by one of Nigeria’s many bogus faith healers collapsed onto its duped worshippers. Pseudo-jihadist terror gang Boko Haram killed around 4,000 people in the preceding 12 months, and, though exact numbers are almost impossible to verify, around the same number in the following six. So it’s a country that’s not without its problems, but for a while, in the eyes of the news networks, Ebola was what mattered. And what about further west, even during Peak Excitement? Malaria killed more than 3,000 people in Liberia in 2013, according to figures from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In Guinea it was nearly 15,000; in Sierra Leone almost 9,000. Next to that, Ebola, which by mid-February had chalked up around 14,000 across all countries since the start of the outbreak, looks puny. So why did it get all the attention?
The Ebola story, as presented by most of the international media outlets, wasn’t about a handful of countries in West Africa at all. It might have looked like it was, but what drove it was the possibility that this thing might get out, out of Africa, come to a place you definitely have heard of, infect hundreds, thousands of people, and turn it into a scene from 28 Days Later –another of the fictional reference points that guide thinking about the story. The risk of this ever actually happening is so small as to be barely worth quantifying. What it gave news managers was all the fun of “covering” – from London, or Geneva, or New York – a major disaster in a place you wouldn’t go on holiday, without ever being in the slightest danger. Covering it, and, more importantly, telling other people in the same city as them that they’re covering it. President Obama called it a “threat to global security” which it patently was and is not. It and the reactions it engendered – stop the flights! Close the borders! - are serious threats to the livelihoods of many people, and the ability of the state to function in Liberia and Sierra Leone especially, but to “global security”? It isn’t even close. A rash of scare stories burst out in Hong Kong, Ireland, India: all people who recently visited Africa and on their return fell ill – could it be? Is this the one? Is this Ebola getting into the global travel system, Contagion lurking in the pipes and vents of an air hub with seven-figure throughput? No. It’s someone with a mild fever, or an easily-treatable case of malaria, or who was so relieved to get out of the place they spent seven hours pounding down free Heinekens on the plane. So it doesn’t infect everyone who sets foot in any of four or five West African countries, but what Ebola does infect is a lot of stories written about Africa.
There have been sensitively-written stories, notably in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the local health workers risking their lives in the containment effort and being paid a pittance for it; there have been egregious mistakes. The U.S.-edition Newsweek cover, featuring a chimpanzee and the line “SMUGGLED BUSHMEAT COULD SPARK A U.S. EPIDEMIC” was rightly regarded as a howling misjudgment, but the ludicrous piece of writing it advertised – a work of fantasy aimed at scaring Americans about the dead flesh of wild beasts - was if anything an even more knuckleheaded approach to the story. An indignant Washington Post column described the Newsweek cover as "in the worst tradition of what journalist Howard French calls ‘Ooga-Booga’ journalism, the practice of writing in exoticizing and dehumanizing ways about Africa."
This may well not be deliberate, but is a product of the mix of schoolboy excitement, the priapic auto-response to speculative statistics, and the vast distance between editors and the people the virus is actually making ill. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, without intervention, Sierra Leone and Liberia could have up to 1.4 million cases before the end of January. Instead, as of mid-February, confirmed cases in all countries totalled one-hundredth of the CDC’s wild forecast. The difference may well be the product massively successful responses from organisations which, unlike the governments of the three worst-affected countries, have the money and the skills to do something about it, or it may be that even people who should know better like to fling around apocalyptic projections, at some level goaded into pressing ‘send’ in an atmosphere of CNN-driven hysteria. The news reporting isn’t wholly responsible for how governments, aid agencies, health professionals and charities respond; it can’t compel people to travel or to spend or to care. But frenzies of the 2014-Ebola type don’t help. The selection process – this is worth reporting, that is not – is, when it comes to Africa, a little different from most other regions, in that one of the top questions asked is ‘what does it mean internationally?’ Malaria-bearing mosquitoes don’t board planes and land in north America, but someone with Ebola might. This isn’t to argue the front pages across Europe should be filled with sorry tales from some distant dusty village, but how that selection works tells us something about perceptions of countries in Africa, and the popular notion of Africa, conceptually, as a dark place filled with lots of nasty things, and if we’re not careful, some of those bad things will find their way onto a boat or a plane, come to the West and wreak a distinctly dirty and un-merry hell in its shiny buildings.
Ebola didn’t. The WHO said on January 28 that responses to it had “moved to a second phase, as the focus shifts from slowing transmission to ending the epidemic.”
Still, you know what these things are like. At any moment, it could come roaring back.
And that, guys, would be great news.