Guinea, the impoverished west African nation, and its neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia, have registered more than 11,000 deaths since the Ebola epidemic flared up in December 2013. It is in Guinea, the original epicenter but least-affected country, where the reaction to the fight against Ebola has been the most suspicious, however, manifesting itself in sporadic bloodshed. The only possible place to encounter Ebola in Conakry is the main treatment unit, yet elsewhere in Guinea the Ebola virus is thriving in a febrile atmosphere of deep mistrust and swirling conspiracy theory.
Eight members of an outreach team in the southeastern town of Womey were killed by protesters who denied the existence of Ebola viral disease and denounced a 'white conspiracy' in September, 2014. Violence erupted last week in the country's western provinces, where there are around 20 confirmed Ebola cases, with attacks targeting public institutions, ambulances and even health workers. The authorities said, "These examples of the reluctance of locals, to employ the official parlance, are igniting new transmission chains and so hampering efforts to stamp out the virus."
Sara Christiaensen, a health promoter at Donka Hospital in Conakry for Doctors Without Borders, which is known by its French initials MSF, said, "When you encounter this reluctance, it is not always easy to follow people who are hiding or trying to escape monitoring and investigations. Among the many reasons is the fear that people will die in Ebola treatment units (ETUs) and then we burn the bodies and sell the blood and body parts. Rumors remain a big challenge. MSF systematically lists the false stories it encounters, in a coordinated bid to counter misinformation."
In a paper reporting the concerns of locals in 26 villages in southern Guinea in the summer of 2014, socio-anthropologist Julienne Anoko, a consultant for the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified all of the rumors which are found, in some form or another, in Guinea and its neighbors. In addition to organ and corpse trafficking, there are theories abound about white Westerners using Ebola scare stories to exploit local resources, and about African leaders making up the epidemic to get aid from these same white people. Some people believe the Ebola virus or its response is all about eliminating sections of the population deemed hostile to the government.
Frederic Le Marcis, a social anthropology professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon, said, "This reluctance is a natural reaction to an intervention of the state and more generally the elites who were perceived as corrupt and violent themselves. This suspicion has been compounded by mistakes made in the initial emergency operation to curb Ebola." A UN-sponsored report in May, 2015, criticized the WHO's slow response, denouncing serious gaps in the early months of the outbreak in terms of engaging with the local communities.
Le Marcis, who has made several field trips to Guinea, said, "These (locals) are not morons who have no knowledge and refuse the biomedical discourse that comes to save them, but people reacting to an experience that does not begin with Ebola. Forest Guinea was a massive source for slaves going to all empires, that has always been on the margins and exploited. The Ebola crisis has reminded the people in the southern region that they were dismissed as savages against which you must struggle during the regime of Sekou Toure, the first president who served from 1958 to his death in 1984. These were areas that were subjected to state violence in whatever form, with an approach of continuous exploitation, and that's true for the whole of Guinea."
MSF's Sara Christiaensen has noticed a fascination with the Cold War in Guinea. She said, "It has spawned a recurring rumor that Ebola was created as a weapon during this period. Nevertheless, awareness of ETUs and Ebola has increased. When we want to recruit, we now get a tonne of CVs whereas a few months ago we had difficulty finding people."
Facely Diawara, Ebola coordinator for the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Guinea said, "Security incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence, fell from 10 a month in early 2015, to eight in February, five in March and one in April to date. We know it's a cycle. When there are new outbreak zones, we are usually exposed to two things. The first is fear that causes misinformation. And so that creates an uncomfortable situation and most of the time this manifests itself in actions of violence and of reluctance. It has been 15 months. They bang their fists against us, we wait, we talk, and afterwards they applaud us."