Ebola spread to Senegal last week, now the fifth country affected in the West Africa Ebola outbreak, which also includes Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone (Reuters, 30 August 2014). At the same time, a record number of Ebola-related protests and riots occurred as residents reacted to ad-hoc government plans to deal with the unprecedented outbreak. This begs the question: how do conflicts and pandemics interact, and what might this mean for future violence as the Ebola pandemic continues to spread?
Whether two harmful forces can feed off of each other to become even more lethal has been investigated by academics, policy-makers, and practitioners, and has largely been concentrated on how HIV/AIDS could change governance across the continent.
Two possible trajectories exist:
(1) A pandemic can fuel conflict through instability by infecting productive members of society; weakening economic capacity through the depletion of resources routed to halt the pandemic; and instilling fear in the population.
(2) Conflict can further fuel the spread of the pandemic through both the geographic movement of infected individuals, as well as the exploitation of civilian populations who often have no recourse to legal or social protections (United States Institute of Peace, 2001.).
Similar trends are beginning to be seen in the case of Ebola in West Africa. Violence against civilians in Guinea where a crowd attacked an Ebola isolation centre and threw rocks at aid workers, likely stemming from fear and misinformation about the disease, was seen as early as April 5 of this year – in line with the first official diagnosis of the disease. This event is only one of three instances of violence against civilians occurring in Guinea in 2014 thus far. In the two weeks following that, a number of protests took place in Liberia relating to the disease (during the two weeks, 2 of the 6 riots/protests seen in Liberia were Ebola-related). Figure 1 shows this increase in Ebola-related conflict events, which largely includes riots and protests. As the pandemic continues to spread, it is likely that events of this nature will continue to be seen.
The sudden spike in the number of cases of Ebola diagnosed in July led to an increase in the number of Ebola-related conflict events. Since early July, riots and protests have been occurring weekly in Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and especially Liberia. In large part, these riots and protests stem from fear of the disease: people have chased away doctors and/or burial teams; shut out medical workers; barricaded or threatened to burn down hospitals; and protested setting up various quarantine centres. Last week witnessed the highest number of Ebola-related riots and protests (4), suggesting that the frequency of Ebola-related conflicts may be increasing. For example, in Nigeria about one-third of the riots/protests that occurred last week were Ebola-related (3 of 10). Figure 2 displays the locations of Ebola-related conflict events. Half of all Ebola-related conflict events have occurred in Liberia, and almost all of these Liberian events have been in the capital city of Monrovia. About one-third of the riots/protests seen in Liberia since early July have been Ebola-related (6 of 17).
The other facet of the conflict-pandemic interaction is also beginning to be seen, conflict events such as riots can lead to the further spread of the pandemic. For example, on August 16, Ebola-infected patients were driven from a treatment centre in Liberia, and their whereabouts are now unknown (The Guardian, 17 August 2014).
While resources are being channelled towards combating the pandemic itself, tackling fears of the disease through information can be beneficial in mitigating some of these conflicts. This may be especially beneficial in instances where these conflicts make the task of combating the pandemic even more difficult, such as in instances where medical workers are unable to complete their job and/or when medical centres are in jeopardy or not performing their necessary functions.
Reuters. 2014. ‘Ebola outbreak reaches Senegal, riots break out in Guinea.’ Reuters, August 30, 2014 http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/29/us-health-ebola-idUSKBN0GS1SU20140829 [Last accessed: 9 September 2014].
United States Institute of Peace. 2001. ‘AIDS and violent conflict in Africa.’ United States Institute of Peace, October 15, 2001 http://www.usip.org/publications/aids-and-violent-conflict-in-africa [Last accessed: 9 September 2014].
The Guardian. 2014. The Guardian, August 17, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/17/ebola-liberia-clinic-raided [Last accessed: 9 September 2014].