Inter-disciplinary perspectives on the Ebola Crisis: Teach-In at Leeds

Blog post by Shani Page-Muir

The Ebola Crisis Teach-In provided students of Politics and related disciplines with a nuanced perspective into the Ebola situation, delivered by a number of academics from across the university. Dr James Worrall, Lecturer in International Relations illustrated how Ebola isn’t novel but has been on the radar for a long time with a variety of previous outbreaks. He stressed throughout, however, that the current outbreak in West Africa is the most severe. Worrall’s presentation was useful as it focused on the more technical aspect of the virus in a way that was easily digestible for students. Discussion covered the disease’s zoonotic nature and how it is most dangerous when corpses are being buried. Worrall also focused on the international response of Ebola, arguing that the response was too late, alluding to the interests of powerful nations.

The second speaker, an expert in health systems, highlighted key differences between the current outbreak and previous outbreaks. What I found most striking was the issue of weak health systems in West Africa and the consequent vulnerability of socio-economic systems. Like Worrall, the speaker touched on the international response. However, he stressed that it is important to define what one means by ‘an international response’ and, as such, he emphasised the importance of transparency and accountability in the conversations. I found Dr Emma Anderson’s presentation most interesting. The lecturer in International Development focused on the politics of health in West Africa, highlighting how the escalation of the outbreak is rooted in political processes. In other words, in order to understand the inadequacy of the response by the international community, one must understand the ‘long duree’ of the politics of health in the region. Such politics discussed included state formation and the erosion of the health sector, extreme forms of ‘gatekeeper politics’ and the inverting of the health system for personal gain. Anderson concluded by stressing that if the underlying structures are not dealt with, the same problems will persist. Essentially that means tackling the Ebola crisis is a political task, fundamentally about social justice.

The presentations were followed by an informative Q&A session. Questions asked included whether funding interventions to tackle Ebola could result in a lack of funding for other diseases. In this light, the notion of AIDS exceptionalism was explored and it was agreed by the speakers that only time will tell.

Overall, the teach-in was useful for those wanting to know more about the basic tenets of Ebola. The event could have been improved with more time for Q&A and attendance by students outside of POLIS, for a wider variety of questions.