Mary Wakefield

Do I really care about Ebola? Do you? Does Oxfam?

The sign of seriousness is seeing a crisis early – and following up after it's finished

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

It’s strange how quickly we all forgot about Ebola. Speak for yourself, you might say — and I will. Until a friend sent me a report this week on the progress of the epidemic, Ebola had, I’m sorry to say, almost faded from my mind. The report contains good news: where the outbreak was worst, in Liberia, there are now just five cases left. Ebola treatment centres are shutting down, unneeded — and I was delighted but also ashamed. I have been to Liberia and written about it and I had thought last year that I cared tremendously about its fate, more than others, perhaps. My heart bled even as my mind ran rat-like to my kitchen to make an inventory of canned goods.

I thought I cared — but did I? The uncomfortable truth, looking back, is that my concern swelled and faded with the media coverage. Out of print meant out of mind, though I know that no news does not necessarily mean good news.

We rats like to spread the blame, so I’d say what’s true of me is true of most of social media’s #carers, and most politicians, too. All that breast-beating when it suits a tweeter to advertise the global scope of their compassion; all that cash suddenly announced when the PM wants rid of the dead-weight of aid money. Thereafter, a simple, terrible lack of interest.

Nor are charities exempt from fair–weather caring. An honest effort from a charity has to be about more than just raising dosh. They get no points for posting pictures of dying African children and taking donations, because that’s as much in their own interests as in Africa’s. ‘Crisis’ funds are rarely ring-fenced, and can be liberated later for the more exciting work of lobbying politicians and writing pamphlets.

So one useful measure of a charity’s genuine concern must be in how quickly and aptly they respond, and how sustained their interest is. If a charity is both slow to react and neglects to document the suffering country’s recovery, then it can’t really be said to care.

Médecins Sans Frontières were the first and best responders to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. They still lead the aid effort and their website bulges with information, updated daily. Oxfam scores less well. Ebola struck Liberia in March last year. A Mr -MacDonald, Oxfam’s boss in the region, said they ‘first became aware of the outbreak in May’ but assumed it would be shortlived. In May? What on earth can they have made of MSF, who were there in their hazmat spacesuits from March? Perhaps they thought it was fancy dress; or perhaps Oxfam’s men were lost ‘in the field’. I remember ‘the field’ in Liberia, the beachside cafés where the aid workers and NGO staff collected after lunch. Drivers idling in stencilled Land Cruisers in the café car-park while their masters spent the afternoon drinking Elephant beer and watching young Liberian girls do handstands on the sand.

This week, as if they had led the aid effort, Oxfam has called for a multi-million-dollar ‘Marshall Plan’ to help Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea recover. ‘The world was late waking up to the crisis,’ said their CEO. Quite. ‘The world cannot now walk away.’ Well, the world might have fancied some up-to-date info from Oxfam a little earlier than this week. No one in the whole buzzing hive, throughout this year-long catastrophe, has bothered to update their Liberia country fact-file, which was last edited in 2012 and is mostly concerned with gender issues.

Nor is there any real mention of the recovery on the appeal page, just: ‘Ebola is devastating communities in West Africa with millions of lives at risk’ and ‘To ramp up our response to the ongoing crisis, we need your help.’ I understand that Liberia’s troubles aren’t over, but the implication on the ‘crisis appeal’ page is that Ebola is still rife across the country. Good for fund-raising maybe, bad for Liberia I’d say. Bad, especially, for business in a country with over 80 per cent unemployment.

There is good news from Liberia, over and above the end of the epidemic, should anyone be minded to report it. Its president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s Iron Lady, claimed that her country would emerge stronger from Ebola, and she might just be right.

For one thing, good sense has trumped superstition in a way that once seemed impossible. In Liberia everyday life is thick with hexes. I didn’t meet a soul there, back in 2010, who didn’t think that spells could protect against bullets. Ebola when it first arrived was seen as an evil spirit, and the sick, the ‘possessed’, were exiled, which only spread the infection. Bodies were hidden, not cremated, for fear of displeasing the gods.

But things have changed. A non-stop campaign of radio ads and pop songs with public health messages has persuaded Liberians to report outbreaks of infection, wash their hands and bury the dead. Liberia is set to become the centre for large-scale trials of an Ebola vaccine, which puts it at the cutting edge of vital research. And that’s where it needs to be if it’s to recover, at the cutting edge, not just at the receiving end of great globs of careless aid. Liberians need jobs and the country needs infrastructure.

A few years back, Johnson Sirleaf copped some flak from the local press for leaving Liberia so often to drum up deals abroad. She hobnobbed with the Chinese and they did business with her, building a university campus and in 2008 putting in transmitters extending Liberia’s radio system throughout the country. It’s worth Oxfam thinking about where the Ebola aid effort would have been without that national radio network.

Since last July, Liberia’s children have been out of school, their classrooms used as wards for the infected and as morgues. On Monday morning next week those classrooms (disinfected) will be full of children again, and soon perhaps, God willing, Liberia will be entirely free of Ebola. If so, I will turn straight to Oxfam’s Ebola Crisis Appeal page for the full report on this terrific news.

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Show comments
  • ladyofshalot

    Thank you Mary for an excellent update. I do agree it has been difficult to follow the Ebola story and even now one is not quite sure if it is correct that the numbers of people catching it is much reduced and/or the proportion of people recovering has risen significantly through nursing care. However what is true is the wonderful work of MSF who are always focussing on the work to be done rather than puffing themselves up like many of the larger charities.

    • Blindsideflanker

      Yes, if there is there is a charity worth supporting it is MSF, they don’t get involved in all the political shenanigans such as Oxfam with their left wing politics. They go to a country to do a job and no more. If they get messed around with by a local despot they withdraw. I also gather they religiously guard their independence and keep their distance from other Aid operations.

  • fun-time freddie

    Ebola had, I’m sorry to say, almost faded from my mind.
    Really? It had completely gone from mine! :^[]

    What on earth can they have made of MSF,
    Maybe Oxfam thought MSF were Lefty prima donna agitators, like Greenpeace or PETA activists. So maybe they awaited PROOF. And Oxfam is hardly my idea of Spockian rationality. So I’d give Oxfam in this case the benefit of the doubt.

  • laurence

    Africa has had the equivalent of two Marshall Plans since the end of the second world war to little evident avail. Part of the problem is outlined above. The prevalence of superstition and juju tomfoolery leads to absurd actions, absurd inactions and absurd pronouncements. A government minister in South Africa held lemon juice to be a suitable weapon against AIDS. The second part of the problem is wholesale, endemic and systemic corruption.Western aid pays for the ruling party’s shopping trips to Paris.

    • freddiethegreat

      If you thought the lemon juice was bad, the minister of Science and Technology was going to launch an investigation as to why lightning tended to kill black rural people more than others.

    • Rocksy

      Right on. Oh by the way who is Ebola?

      • TrulyDisqusted

        White South African who famously ran barefoot and who was banned for being a white African from competing at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh by all those nice liberal people..

        • Rocksy

          I remember her.

          • Cyril Sneer

            Zola Budd

  • gerronwithit

    I had hoped that this was going to be an interesting article, but no, another moralising piece supposed to prick our now very dull consciences about a series of basket case African countries who ‘need’ serial charity to keep their corrupt governments going and to fill the coffers of equally dubious charities, although some of the inadequacies of Oxfam were highlighted.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    Does this now mean that despite the hysteria, we’re not all going to die from a global pandemic.

    Does this also now mean that NGOs and the WHO laying on thick in order to get governments to act now risks looking like irrational scaremongering by the public, which will have severe consequences should there really be a global killer pandemic one day.

    Next time they need to find a way of provoking action without using an end of days narrative in the media. Otherwise when the day comes when ordinary people (not just governments) will need to listen to health experts, they’ll be less likely to.

  • davidofkent

    Ebola is a virus and we still have very little defence against viruses. As with colds and flu, you usually have to let them burn themselves out and just treat the symptoms. We have poured £billions into Africa and they just keep on having more and more children and giving them less and less education. As usual, it has taken Western medical help to contain the outbreak because the Africans cannot or will not do anything for themselves.

  • Gerschwin

    I forgot about Ebola a while back, I think around the moment I worked out it was going to kill fewer people than flu would kill the elderly in Britain this year. Then when the NGOs saw a good dollar opportunity and started trying to morally blackmail me into giving them my money whilst their Directors pick up six figure salaries….at that point I wished all the NGOs would get Ebola as well… and when we sent in the the British International Relief Agency in Green (formerly the British Army That Once Defeated Napoleon At Waterloo But You Wouldn’t Know It Now) I reached for the whisky and flipped open some random Bukowski…you know how it is.
    Move on…move on…

    • TrulyDisqusted


      I recently had yet another paid “chugger” in fluorescent bib from one of the Corporate “Charities” knock on my front door. I took my rather loud and excitable dog, opened the door and said “I’m going to count to ten and then let go of his collar…”

      Ignorant little prig didn’t even properly introduce himself and apologise for disturbing me before he legged it back down the path from whence he’d came!

      I’m afraid these Corporate “Charities” are going to have to invest a little more in the training and etiquette of their ambassadors before they get another single penny from me.

      (when collecting donations for the RNLI, I give my time willingly and for free)

  • Hogspace

    Vote UKIP to save the entire overseas aid budget and certainly no more squandered on Africa. They didn’t want to be associated with us in the past so no reason for us to support them now.
    Anyway, the biggest problem faced in Africa is population explosion (and Islam of course)

  • David S

    Try these people instead:
    They were there before it started and had a piece in the Guardian last summer pleading with the major aid agencies to get involved. Now they are helping to pick up the pieces.

  • ladyofshalot

    Cannot believe some of the downright unpleasantness offered up in some of these comments here. OK a lot of money has been squandered but humanity seems in very short supply however I do hope none of these commentators ever personally run into the Ebola virus. Good for David S for his excellent comment on Street Child who helps those orphans whose parents have both died from Ebola.

    • Helen of Troy

      Your horse is too high and your helmet doesn’t fit.

    • red2black

      Don’t walk into a shit-house expecting a pleasant smell.

  • Leonidas

    Oxfam’s lefties spend more time lobbying for their pet lefty policies than actually doing anything very useful. As highlighted, compare this to MSF getting stuck in and outshining everyone. Africa will survive the former and be grateful for the latter