When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, it spread with dizzying speed — and outwitted responders. By the time the epidemic ended in 2016, more than 28,000 people had been infected and 11,325 had died. It didn’t have to be that way, write Pardis Sabeti and Lara Salahi. In “Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic,” they uncover the chaos behind the world’s response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, and posit how it could have been avoided.
Sabeti, a genetic researcher, was on a team that determined when and where Ebola first jumped from animals to humans. But as she collaborated with officials on the ground in West Africa, she noticed the response was uncoordinated. Interpersonal tensions brewed. Politics and logistics slowed down the response process. All too often, fear prevailed, with disastrous consequences.
Salahi, a journalist, and Sabeti make a case for what is called “outbreak culture,” a pernicious, toxic situation that evolves during the flare-up of an infectious disease. This culture thrives on denial, blame and mistrust. Ethics can fall to the wayside as bad actors use epidemics to bolster their careers; responders on the ground scramble for the resources they need.
It is as predictable as the plot of a bad movie — and it happens over and over again, the authors write.
Rooted in personal stories and testimonies, the book is a critical, poignant postmortem of the epidemic. But the authors aren’t content to just list the many failures of the last crisis. They lay out a plan to sidestep such outbreak cultures and allow organizations to coordinate, information to flow freely, and public health campaigns to thwart deadly diseases.
“The next epidemic demands better,” they conclude.
Their words are painfully timely. Africa faces another Ebola contagion — this time in an active war zone in Congo.