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One evening last year in Brazzaville, Congo, as we were playing a lazy game of tennis outdoors under the floodlights, I heard a swishing sound. Little bats used to flit down and sometimes collide with our tennis balls, so I assumed we were in for a bat attack. We were: but, instead of little birdlike pipistrelle, two fruit bats as big as dogs, with wings a metre wide, swept down over the courts. They looked like nothing on earth – feathered chests, bulging eyeballs, fangs… We dived to the ground – all of us, foreigners and Congolese – as they passed low over our heads. We stayed down, expecting another attack, but the bats never came back.

LIKE THOSE HORRORS, ALL OUR WORST FEARS SEEM to come from the steamy tropical jungles of Central Africa. However, it is important to understand which are the rational fears, and which are the wild fantasies, the nightmares.

Around 1900, in a remote part of southeastern Cameroon, a porter for a colonial company picked up the HIV virus from an infected chimpanzee – probably by eating it (about 2 million Africans eat such “bushmeat”). HIV/AIDS spread down the Congo River to Leopoldville (now called Kinshasa). According to the genetic record, all the HIV in the world seems to have come from a single piece of genetic material that existed in Leopoldville at the beginning of the 20th century. Africans spread it in Africa, but it took a Western missionary to spread it to the wider world.

In 1976, near the Ebola River in northern Congo, not far from the source of HIV/AIDS, a new filovirus was first detected in a mission hospital run by Flemish nuns. The first victim was Mabalo Lokela, a 44-year-old schoolteacher. As with HIV, scientists first believed that the source of Ebola was bushmeat, but since monkeys also died from the disease, they could not be its reservoir. Working their way through candidate species, researchers found that fruit bats carried Ebola without dying. This makes them the likely reservoir, transmitting the virus by biting monkeys, apes, armadillos, porcupines – and occasionally humans.

HOWEVER COMPELLING AND FASCINATING THESE EXOTIC ORIGINS MAY BE, the way the diseases spread – and particularly the way the information about the diseases spread – tells us something about colonialism and power.

HIV/AIDS certainly circulated in a low-key way throughout tropical Africa for decades without exploding. Up until the 1950s, it is estimated that only 1% of the adults in major African population centres had AIDS. One likely reason was the predominance of circumcision among African men (circumcised males are 70% less likely to transmit HIV). Poverty is another factor. “Wealthier people — doctors, teachers, politicians, singers — get HIV in completely disastrous numbers. Some of that has to do with access to resources and multiple sexual partners.”[1]

Colonialism undoubtedly helped AIDS spread in Africa – it can be traced coming down the rivers in colonial vessels, along porter paths and colonial trading posts and railroad lines.

With Ebola, the situation was different. Unlike HIV/AIDS, which only really exploded publicly among the gay population of the United States in the 1980s, we knew right away that Ebola was coming from Africa. Although the initial outbreaks were generally shut down as soon as they were observed, Ebola quickly became demonized as a particularly horrible, disgusting, mysterious, EVIL killer.

EBOLA IS CERTAINLY HORRIBLE ENOUGH – YOU GET IT THROUGH contact with the body fluids of the dying and dead – and days or weeks after they have died. What you experience is not nice: high fever, severe headache, muscle, joint, or abdominal pain, severe weakness, exhaustion, sore throat, nausea, dizziness, internal and external bleeding, diarrhoea, dark or bloody faeces, vomiting blood, red eyes, rash, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, damage to the kidneys, spleen, and liver, internal and external haemorrhage from orifices such as the nose and mouth… According to the books, “Eventually, Ebola will turn the host’s organs to a mush-like substance.”[2] It takes about three weeks, and up to 90% die. There’s no standard treatment for it, either.

The thing is, as long as you segregate the remains of those who have died of it from the population, you can contain it. This has been the result to date. Typically ten or twenty people die in an outbreak, a tragedy for the individuals, of course, but far from enough to be considered a major public health issue. To get some perspective, at the time of writing, there have been over 15,000 cases of Ebola in the last 20 weeks, resulting so far in about 5,500 deaths. In the same period, some 200,000 children have died from malaria in Africa. Annually, between 250,000 and 500,000 people in the world die from influenza. By these yardsticks, Ebola should be almost invisible as a public health problem. To some, the fact that Ebola has become such a focus of attention is a consequence of “the pathology of the capitalist system”[3].

BUT THE THRILL OF SHOCKING AND HORRIFYING NEWS IS HARD TO RESIST. Richard Preston’s 1994 non-fiction book The Hot Zone was the first to raise the spectre of this African plague in Western consciousness. Subtitled “A Terrifying True Story”, the book didn’t try to resist the temptation to sensationalize the pants off the story. Preston makes the connection between infected animal remains he found in a cave in Uganda and a lab in Reston, Virginia, where a monkey virus similar to Ebola, but which does not affect humans, was discovered. The unmistakable insinuation was that we could expect mass transmission of this African horror to the West.

The book was a best-seller. Based on this, Outbreak, a high-budget Hollywood movie, was made in 1995 with an A-list of stars including Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Kevin Spacey and Donald Sutherland. The film spread the notion that Ebola could be transmitted through the air – in fact, it can’t. It was a box office and financial success, securing number 1 on its opening weekend. With a $50 million budget, it went on to gross some $190 million worldwide.[4]

Of course, treating “Darkest Africa” as the source of such exaggerated nightmares is both childish and demeaning to the continent. It may betray colonialist and racist attitudes – the fear of being tainted by the “Other” (to use Kapuscinski’s terminology), of being defiled by this vile, alien contagion. One African commentator[5] called this “whipping up anti-African hysteria.” “The media has racialized the Ebola pandemic”.

AMONG THOSE WHO NOTED THE RISE OF A NEW BIOLOGICAL NASTY were the Japanese terrorist group– Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a bioterror campaign in 1995, dispersing the nerve agent sarin on the Tokyo underground and killing 13 people. Police investigating the cult found Ebola cultures at their headquarters, which members had picked up in Zaire the year before. Fortunately, Ebola cannot be spread this way.

Some commentators, noting that the US government carried out a biological and chemical weapon experimentation project called Project 112 from 1962 to 1973[6], wonder if the present outbreak has anything to do with such experimentation, although this seems most improbable for the same reasons that stopped Aum Shinrikyo – it is simply not so easy to collect, preserve and transmit.

TO CONCLUDE, IT IS WORTH NOTING THAT ALMOST ALL THE EBOLA AID for the three West African countries most affected in the present outbreak – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – is coming from the three former colonial masters, respectively, the USA, the UK and France, and that each is giving virtually nothing to either of the other two.

China is giving something to each of them, but then China wants something from all of them: “iron ore mining, energy and infrastructure“, according to Professor Sreeram Chaula[7], who develops the theme of “viral aid” in his recent paper. “If the US, UK and France were driven by humanitarian motives,” he asks, “Why did they not contribute to the multilateral UN Ebola response fund that would have distributed the funds more equitably among the three worst-hit West African countries? Thus far, only India and Australia have made sizeable donations of $10 million each to the UN Ebola fund that is woefully undersubscribed.”

The moral of the story is that we should be alert to the stereotypes we are handed by our so-called friends in the media, who want more readers; by our would-be educators in the entertainment industry, who want to sell more tickets and popcorn; by our wise or crafty leaders, who want to exercise their power in former colonies; and even by the impartial, evidence-based medical establishment, which knows which way the political and budgetary winds are blowing.

The giant fruit bats float through the humid forests of Africa as they have for thousands of years. From some genetic mutation they collect a poison virus in their veins. Wheeling in the dark, they dive out of the night to bite their natural prey, completely unaware of the chaos they are sowing among the human race. No doubt, there is more to come…

[1] Rob Waters. AIDS: Why Africa suffers for the West’s sins. Craig Timberg interview. Salon Magazine, 9/3/2012 http://www.salon.com/2012/03/09/aids_why_africa_suffers_for_the_west%E2%80%99s_sins/

[2] WHO advisory to travellers

[3] Ebola Epidemic Exposes the Pathology of the Capitalist System, Amit Sengupta, Newsclick, August 21, 2014, http://newsclick.in/international/ebola-epidemic-exposes-pathology-capitalist-system

[4] Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outbreak_%28film%29

[5] Horace G. Campbell. 2014. Ebola, the African Union and bioeconomic warfare. Pambazuka News 697, 2014-10-08 https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/usaafricadialogue/kIOxB6Ve7bs

[6] Horace G. Campbell. 2014. Ebola, the African Union and bioeconomic warfare. Pambazuka News 697, 2014-10-08 https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/usaafricadialogue/kIOxB6Ve7bs

[7] Sreeram Chaulia, 2014.Foreign pulse: Viral politics. Originally published in Asian Age. Oct 07, 2014. Available from  http://sreeramchaulia.net/publications/EbolaPolitics.htm