This is a personal piece that I wrote last week on the plane to Liberia.  I am not castigating all media – there has been good coverage of the Ebola outbreak – particularly thoughtful pieces like Paul Farmer’s piece in the LRB

With the caveat that I am not a medical doctor (and so please don’t treat this as medical advice) nor am I writing on behalf of UNICEF (so it is only Chris Fabian) here is what I wrote in the sky between Casablanca and Monrovia.


17 october, on a plane to liberia

i don’t remember what the early days of AIDS were like, but i know people talked a lot about the fear that went around from person to person.  could you get it from a payphone?  could you get it from a toilet seat?  i heard someone say once that his turning point was when he started telling people “even if someone spits on the payphone and you lick it, you won’t get aids.”

Churchgoers returning home. Monrovia. Sunday, 19 October. (Fabian)

payphones aren’t really a thing anymore, and you could catch ebola from licking someone else’s spit – but you can’t get it from touching someone, when they travel from liberia, if they’re not symptomatic – not feverish, bleeding, aching, etc.  – simply because that’s not how the virus works.

but that message is really complicated – and the word ‘liberia’ isn’t.  ‘liberia’ is just far away, also dark, also a death sentence.  this casting hurts our ability to stop an epidemic, because it turns the contrast up so far that either you’re someone in a hazmat suit, spraying chlorine, or you’re a broken dead body on the ground.  and there’s no space for solutions in that dichotomy.

i don’t think “h5n1” is that scary sounding… it is pretty clinical, pretty removed. it’s got some numbers and letters in it which makes it scientific, which means it’s been solved – somehow.

ebola – “ebola”  – sounds scary.  some deep heavy vowels, lost in the sheltering trees of the tall ‘b’ and the ‘l’ – you can hear kurtz saying it with careful antagonism
‘ebola’

and ‘ebola’ is actually the name of a river, a dark river, somewhere in dark africa, and so it’s scary,  so much more scary than ‘avian influenza’ – that’s just birds… something about birds and a flu, which we have a shot for, which you can get at CVS.  nothing scary there.

Chillin’ in Monrovia. A family day. Sunday, 19 October. (Fabian)

and so i wonder, since i’ve had two wild reactions so far- people in New York physically jumping back when i told them i was going – “was”- in the “future” to liberia – that they wouldn’t talk to me when i get back, that they wouldn’t touch me, or come near me.

I see a friend of mine, in the airport in morocco (lots of aid workers, everyone practicing the ‘don’t touch each other’ policy – no handshakes, no contact.  this is not a stupid idea, in the hot zone where we’re going- and lots of liberians, going home, being fairly quiet) generally everybody doing pretty badly at the no contact rule because the queue to get on the plane involves being jammed, jostled, and squeezed.  but it’s ok.  no one is sick, they’re not bleeding,  this is not how you get ebola. H5N1, on the other hand – yes.  HIV? no.

my friend is going to sierra leone (where he’s from) to work on giving information and access to services to girls, during this crisis.  he tells me about a friend of his who flew to the US for a wedding recently, and no one would dance with her – no one would come near her.  there haven’t been any cases of ebola in ghana.

it sounds to me like something more than fear of a disease.  it feels to me like the worst kind of fear, mixed with various types of ignorance (ignorance of science, ignorance of health care, ignorance of geography). it is a symbol of how the world looks at itself in a very funhouse kind of mirror.  the same mirror that allows us to say ‘the global south’ or ‘the bottom billion’ or ‘the developing world’ that allows the for a certain smug nationalism.

i said to someone “they killed the nurse’s dog”
he said: “well good, of course they should have killed the thing.”

and like that the fear comes out.  it’s not that i particularly love dogs – but the ability to so callously speak, and objectify the living to make room for death starts to sound, to me, like a hysteria of a much meaner type.  a type that comes from shrill monotone zealots screaming “close the borders” “close the airlines” and leads to a world more divided, and not one that is reaching for common solutions and common humanity.

Making Dinner. Monrovia, Liberia. 19 October. (Fabian)

one thing i will be looking for in liberia, and in sierra leone, is the solution that are emerging in the space between death and the hazmat suit – ideas that are being created locally, for solving this horrific, hellish epidemic.  ideas that we can take and apply in other contexts, or help extend inside the countries where they have begun.

we know this approach works – systems like uReport in zambia – which allows kids to use their most basic of mobile phones to do sms (text-message) based counseling is open-source software built by zambian developers – but adapted from the uReport uganda code base, and from RapidSMS before that.  these solutions don’t always involve technology – but they will all involve looking without stigma, without fear, and without polarizing rhetoric at a set of problems that can affect us all.

Chris Fabian
@unickf
Written:
Friday, 17 October
In the air, West Africa


This is a personal piece that I wrote last week on the plane to Liberia.  I am not castigating all media – there has been good coverage of the Ebola outbreak – particularly thoughtful pieces like Paul Farmer’s piece in the LRB

With the caveat that I am not a medical doctor (and so please don’t treat this as medical advice) nor am I writing on behalf of UNICEF (so it is only Chris Fabian) here is what I wrote in the sky between Casablanca and Monrovia.

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