The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been the worst in the disease’ history. Nearly three thousand people have already died, and over 5,700 cases have been discovered as of this month. As the virus spreads, panic and chaos follow in its wake. Of all the countries in the region, Liberia has been hit the hardest, and its citizens are openly disregarding advice from both the World Health Organization and their own government by hiding infected patients and stealing bloody bedsheets and mattresses. Worse still, there are reports of armed mobs attacking hospitals and freeing infected patients, thus allowing the virus to spread even further.
It’s hard to understand why people would behave this way. At first glance, it looks like an intentional act of suicide on a grand scale. Those who have participated in these raids and thefts are suspicious of their government, and believe that the outbreak has been caused intentionally. So how exactly did an entire country become so paranoid that its citizens are willing to steal soiled linen?
Since 1989, Liberia has undergone two civil wars, both of which contributed enormously to the nation’s current destitution. In both cases, a man named Charles Taylor was involved, fighting against a corrupt dictator named Samuel Doe in the former, while attempting to maintain his own iron-fisted dominance over Liberia in the latter. Under both Doe and Taylor, millions have been killed or displaced as a direct result of the wars. Thanks also in large part to warfare, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and scores even lower than Afghanistan on the Human Development Index.
Liberia’s illiteracy rate sits at just over 60%, and while education is free and compulsory, classroom conditions are inadequate at best in many parts of the country. Life expectancy sits at around 57 years, and malaria and tuberculosis run rampant. Finally, Liberia has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual violence against women, while its police force seems unmotivated or uninterested in taking action.
Amidst all this hardship, corruption is widespread throughout the Liberian government. Liberia scores a staggering 3.8 out of 10 (10 being least corrupt and 0 being most corrupt) on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Most senior officials use their positions to increase their own wealth and power, rather than help the population at large. During Charles Taylor’s rule, he amassed a large fortune from the exploitation of blood diamonds as well as the illegal timber trade. As if that weren’t enough, Taylor partnered in these industries with Pat Robertson, one of the most infamous evangelical preachers in the United States. In a predominantly Christian country with strong ties to the United States, one can only imagine how deeply this betrayal was felt amongst the population.
Years of systematic abuse by the government has meant that any semblance of trust between it and the people dissolved long ago. At best, the political system has been indifferent towards the plight of the average Liberian, and at worst it has been outright destructive. With a government that actively murdered its population in collusion with foreign interests, it’s no wonder Liberians believe this Ebola outbreak has been caused intentionally.
The sad reality is that the latest outbreak of Ebola has evolved far beyond anything Liberia can manage itself. At this very moment, both the United Nations and the WHO have requested immediate assistance from developed countries in order to mount an effort to curb the virus’ spread. Aside from an obvious lack of resources, Liberians have been taught that authority figures are naturally out to get them. Hence, aside from enormous logistical hurdles that will need to be overcome, Liberia’s government also has to work to regain the population’s trust. Without this, it is certain that anti-Ebola efforts in Liberia will continue to be undermined, and Liberians will continue to lash out in fear and anger.
– Alex Regimbald
Image License: Some rights reserved by European Commission DG ECHO