BY SWETA DUTTA
The current pandemic has taken over our lives completely. Every waking hour we find ourselves incessantly scrolling through different news portals to keep ourselves updated about any new development. Things are changing every second and looks like the pandemic is far from over. It has infected over 2 million people worldwide and the death toll is around 200 thousand. Most of the countries in the world are either under partial or complete lockdown. For most of us it is something completely unprecedented and it has caused mass panic. However, is the covid crisis as unusual as we think it is?
To answer this question, we don’t need to look too far. The pandemic we are witnessing today mimics the events and processes that contributed to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak and the resulting hysteria.
Ivy League universities are currently offering free online courses and one such course is, “Lessons from Ebola: Preventing the next pandemic” extended by Harvard University. This course was originally created in the year 2015 when the outbreak was showing signs of slowing down. It is a four week long course and the panel of experts discuss about the context of the outbreak, the local response, the global response and the lessons one can learn for the next pandemic.
During the period of this course, one can find startling similarities between how the Ebola outbreak and the current pandemic unfolds. At the administrative front, the experts were of the opinion that the government of all the three worst affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were reluctant to close off the country as it would have hampered their booming economy. According to Peter Piot, one of the experts, these countries were doing relatively well, economically. The rate of growth of GDP was more than 10% prior to the massive outbreak which went on to infect 27,000 people, killing 11,000. Current leaders are also facing criticism for choosing economic and political gains over the lives of its people and taking the threat of the pandemic lightly. The Health Ministry of India on 13th March announced that Covid-19 is not a health emergency in India. At that time there were less than 100 positive cases in the country.
Yet, things escalated quickly and by 24th March a nationwide lockdown was announced. Within a month, since the announcement of it not being a health emergency, India has recorded over 10,000 covid positive cases and over 300 deaths. The United States is currently the epicenter of the virus outbreak with around 7 lakh cases alone. The country’s President is receiving severe backlash for his incompetent leadership and failure to deliver at the time of crisis. Trump continues to undermine the treacherous nature of the deadly virus and seems eager to open up the country again. The WHO have also faced criticism for not alerting the countries about the incoming pandemic and for downplaying its severity and supporting China in the process. Taiwan says that they alerted WHO about the coronavirus back in December. Donald Trump also recently stopped their funding to WHO. Similar allegations were made by the panel of experts who unanimously claimed that WHO delayed in declaring Ebola a viral outbreak.
Failure to grapple with the enormity of the pandemic has resulted in insufficient testing kits and PPE in countries. In the UK, according to a recent report in the Independent, NHS nurses might have to work without gowns and use plastic aprons instead to deal with the ‘global shortage’ of PPE. In India, AIIMS have asked its doctors and nurses to reuse their N95 masks and PPE after they complained about not having sufficient protective gear. Similar reports are cropping up from different parts of the country. A member of the Health ministry of Liberia and one of the experts in the course panel, Elsie Karmor Ballah recalls that they had to wear plastic bags as gloves during the Ebola epidemic. This caused fear among the doctors and nurses as Ebola is a highly contagious viral disease and requires hands-on treatment. Eventually a number of frontline workers lost their lives. As shared by one of the panelists, many doctors and nurses ended up in the same ward as their patients. A similar scene can be seen erupting in the current pandemic. In India almost 100 frontline workers including police officers have tested positive for Covid-19.
Subsequently, Ebola came to be known as the caregiver’s disease as more and more health workers were getting infected. People grew wary of them and they were often stopped from entering villages. This resonates with the frequently reported incidences of attacks on doctors and other health workers during the current pandemic.
One might be aware that coronavirus has given rise to a process of othering. As the origin of the outbreak can be traced back to the Chinese city of Wuhan, many identify this virus with China and Chinese people. This has given rise to cases of racism against people of Asian origin In India, the people of North-East India were harassed because of their Mongolian features. During the Ebola epidemic, people relegated the virus outbreak to the burial rituals of the African communities and their bushmeat consumption. This led to a sense of othering.
Both the viral outbreaks, ravaging through humanity have uncovered similar shortcomings and have posed identical challenges.