Ebola: When Culture Confronts Science

Respect people’s deeply seated cultural beliefs on things like burial during an emergency? Seek to understand and make some accommodation when the family is grief stricken and at their most vulnerable?

I’m posting a link to the second of National Geographic reporter Amy Maxmen’s articles on Ebola, people and culture.  This one gives a good overview of burial practices in Sierra Leone and why people have been so unwilling to give these up.  Even when confronted with the risk of death themselves.

Maxmen reports with both facts and sensitivity. Maybe it takes National Geographic and its long legacy of studying and reporting the world’s cultures to bring this kind of understanding behind the headline news.

Culture confronts Science  “The problem was that the people handling the intervention only looked at this as a health issue; they did not try to understand the cultural aspects of the epidemic.”

from National Geographic - adapting burial practices

from Nat’l Geographic – adapting burial practices. Start with prayers. Use white, the Muslim color of mourning.

Sierra Leone people are deeply spiritual, and there’s different tribes and subcultures. The escalating Ebola crisis was really about confronting cultural beliefs and changing unsafe behaviors. Outside health care and aid workers calling the shots came armed to fight Ebola only with science. There was no time for culture.

Yet for Sierra Leoneans, it was all about culture. With death – unexpected, tragic death – you automatically index to your most fundamental cultural beliefs.

When it became clear Ebola wasn’t ending quickly, respect and cultural accommodation finally came into play. The right things started to happen, and the Ebola epidemic started to decline. Families began to accept burial by strangers who had before seemed like anonymous body snatchers, throwing their loved ones in the back of a truck like trash. People started trusting health services more and calling for help.

Could this whole tragic episode have been shortened and lives saved with a different mindset?  Who knows. Read the whole National Geographic article and decide what you think.


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