Ice Bucket Challenge and Ebola

13 Min Read

Many Africans living on the continent and Diaspora have accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge – they are pouring buckets of ice-cold water over their heads to raise awareness for ALS (amyotrophic sclerosis). Taking part in the global phenomenon for ALS or Lou Gehirg’s disease is not limited to Africa, the challenge is currently trending across the world in places like France and Afghanistan. The idea behind the challenge is that a person can challenge family, friends or colleagues through social media to dump a bucket of ice water on their head within 24 hours or face the penalty of donating $100 to support research for ALS. Whilst ALS has no geographic, racial or gender boundaries, it seems rather misplaced that Africans are raising awareness for ALS when there is an epidemic killing thousands on the continent which is being virtually ignored.

Ebola is the worst disease outbreak in history. The World Health Origination reports has killed more people than all other epidemics combined. There have been about 4,000 cases of Ebola with 2, 296 reported deaths and the numbers are rising. The disease is reaping havoc on the West African nations. It has become pretty clear that the healthcare systems in affected countries – which already have trouble meeting their normal healthcare needs – are collapsing with little help on the horizon. Although many would pin their hopes on WHO, they are not an emergency relief organization such as the Red Cross who is mandated for emergency relief.

One reason for the lukewarm philanthropic response to the Ebola outbreak by aid agencies like the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders is partly due to a lack of interest from people outside Africa. They have decided against creating dedicated donation pages for their Ebola responses, quite frankly, because no one cares. It is unlikely though that Ebola will garner much attention at this stage given the little media attention that it is receiving. However, WHO reports that the outbreak can be contained in six to nine months given the resources to tackle the outbreak are made available.

Who Cares About Ebola?

The stark truth of the matter is that the majority of the world doesn’t care about the Ebola outbreak. It is an epidemic that is not on their shores and unlikely to affect them directly in the immediate future. Their major concern about the disease is whether it will reach their own borders or not. In fact, coverage about Ebola in the U.S. seemed to increase during two distinct incidents.

The first was when Americans contracted it in Liberia and where being flown to a facility in Atlanta to receive treatment. According to an ABC news report, a National Institute of Health official noted that “Desperate to save the American Ebola patients in Liberia, Samaritan’s Purse started researching experimental treatments”. A vaccine had miraculously appeared after hundreds of Africans had already died, including doctors and healthcare providers who were essential in helping to contain the epidemic in the early stages.

The second time news of Ebola peaked in the U.S. was in the days preceding and during Obama’s African summit. American media outlets were overly concerned that the historic African Summit, which was supposed to be a step towards America re-engaging with Africa in terms of building business and sharing ideas, would instead be an exchange of disease. A few outlets noted that African Presidents and Ministers, who incidentally are often criticized for being recipients some of the best healthcare in the world whilst neglecting the healthcare of their own nations, were coming into the U.S. and would bring in Ebola to the county.

Needless to say the American response has been dismal. Obama pledged support and so did a few European countries. However, it is nowhere near the levels of support received for international crises such as the Tsunami that hit Asia a few years back. In fact, few recall that the Tsunami killed people on Africa’s shores as well because when it comes to African disasters, the world is somewhat desensitized. America had a plan for helping deal with the Tsunami – the majority of the assistance and public attention was understandably, geared towards Asia which was hardest hit, but Africa was almost completely forgotten in the Tsunami narrative. Currently, America doesn’t have a plan for combating Ebola like it has done in other similar crisis situations.

During the “Asian” Tsunami, neither WHO nor the UN sent ships full of life-saving material. It was the US military. When it comes to African epidemics in particular, seeing Africans suffering from diseases has almost become normal particularly in the age of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps they are not expecting anything different from a region of Africa they nicknamed the “white man’s grave”? Ebola desperately needs greater attention in the U.S. and all across the world. It also needs greater attention in Africa.

Ice Buckets in Africa

Given the poor response to the Ebola crisis around the world, the first time I saw the Ice Bucket Challenge trending in Africa I had to sit and pause. I wasn’t sitting in awe of globalization and celebrating that now people in Africa could participate in raising awareness for a good cause. I was reflecting on the hegemonic context in which this was occurring. How was it possible that a disease that was being called attention to in one part of the world could usurp attention from one that needed more immediate relief in on one’s own shores?

Nigerian celebrities were taking part the ice bucket challenge with Ebola knocking down their doors. Africans in the remaining corners of the continent where doing the same – and much further away, Africans in the Diaspora had also taken on this challenge. If Africans could support ALS why were they not raising awareness for a disease that was affecting themselves, their neighbors or their continent?

Africans should be the first people to continuously and tirelessly raise awareness of this disease. First, our compassion for epidemics and other malaise occurring on the continent needs to be as equally (if not, more) important as any other international cause.

Second, even though Africa is large and some think Ebola is all the way on the other side of the continent for, the potential for it to travel is high so it directly affects them.

Third, Africa and its diaspora has a shared future, so what happens in one part of the continent directly or indirectly affects us all.

Lastly, the process of raising awareness needs to be given greater thought. The majority of people living in African nations have poor access to water and electricity. Such challenges can come across as rather callous to the millions in the rural area whose “real” challenge is having to walk miles to get water in a bucket to bring back to a home without electricity (some people from the Global South have equally criticized the global North participants for being out of touch with the reality of the rest of the world and for being wasteful in an age of global inequality and water scarcity).

Now, this is not to say we should shame or guilt those in Africa and the Diaspora for having access to water. As Africans though, we need to be more conscious of matters that are affecting Africa and of our own environments. We should not wait until someone in the Global North tells us what our cause should be or tell us it is okay to be concerned about Ebola. There will always be global trends, but priority should be given to the ones closes to us.

Many will recall that both on the continent and in the Diaspora, some Africans had never heard of Kony nor cared about his whereabouts until the Kony 2012 campaign made it fashionable. The sad part about Ebola too is that once Bono starts calling attention to it, that’s when the Nigerian celebrities and Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora will follow suit.

Africa’s Challenge

Everyday Africans need to start proactively raising awareness for issues that are more pressing to them – that is the challenge for the many Africans on social media. Social media has given many people a voice and platform that was not available in the past. The use of social media was very effective when the Nigerians raised awareness for the missing girls globally and created the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

In the case of healthcare, the Ivory Coast’s “Lather Against Ebola Campaign” is a good start – it uses catchy songs and comedy to educate people on how to avoid getting Ebola. Whilst it’s caught on in many parts of the country, it is hardly going to trend on Africa or any other part of the world’s Twitter or Facebook feeds.

If Africa wants the world to care about Ebola, Africa has to care about Ebola. The need to raise awareness for Ebola which is an immediate threat to them more urgently then they do ALS is important. This is not to say that they shouldn’t have empathy with those that suffer from ALS however, Africans need to rise to the occasion at such critical moments in history when there is a crisis that is threatening them and demand solutions as well as attention.

One lost opportunity was at the U.S. Africa Summit when the three Presidents of the most affected countries did not attend. What a strong message it would have been had all the African Presidents instead redirected their schedules to hold the emergency AU meeting on Ebola, which only occurred the first week of September. If every day Africans don’t start raising awareness for their own epidemics it is unlikely that others will do so.

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