Commentary Ebola and what the media missed

For more information on these events, contact Tamari Kitossa at, or Richard Ndayizigamiye at more information on African Heritage Month, see the story in The Brock News As part of African Heritage Month, there will be a “Healing through Communication Symposium” that will discuss international health-care responses to Ebola in West Africa and Canada’s domestic response to HIV/AIDS in Black communities. In the lead-up to the Feb. 25 event, research communications intern Holly Mohr writes this commentary on one aspect of the Ebola outbreakBy Holly MohrAs the dust settles following months of media coverage of the Ebola outbreak, another dimension of the story is emerging that may shine a different light on the situation.At the height of the outbreak, media coverage focusing on the uncontainable and deadly Ebola virus generated a lot of fear. Details outlining the gruesome deaths, hazmat suits and border control policies appeared to be broadcast on every station, in every newspaper and all over social media, leading many to believe that the virus results in inevitable death.In fact, according to global statistics contained in a Feb. 18 report from the World Health Organization, more than half of those who contracted the virus survived.What’s more, it has been known for some time that Ebola survivors are immune to the virus (, and thus are able to help relief efforts with their unique position.During an international press conference this month, the National Publicity and Outreach Coordinator of Sierra Leone, Abdulai Bayraytay, spoke about the growing number of people who have overcome the disease.“We have turned out many survivors … (and) we have named them heroes and heroines,” Bayraytay said during a Feb. 10 conference call with journalists. He explained that, far from spreading the contagion of the virus, discharged Ebola survivors in fact spread important information with local communities.“When the word got out that Ebola is not necessarily a deadly virus if it’s reported early, a lot of people reported cases.”There is no doubt that Ebola has been devastating, especially in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, but why has the international news media portrayed the disease as impossible to survive?“For something to be news, it has to be news worthy,” says Derek Foster, an associate professor in Communications, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University. “Something that is worthy of our attention breaks through the ordinary and is remarkable and dramatic. What’s dramatic? Usually violence, death or disease, something that we should be scared of.”Today, the media gives little coverage to the spectacle of Ebola survivors returning to help infected patients. Along with knowing the needs of the patients better than most, the survivors are also familiar with the cultural context.“We recruit them from their local communities,” said Bayraytay. “They know the terrain, they know the people and they speak the language.”According to Bayraytay, the declining number of confirmed cases is largely attributed to social mobilization and education of local people. For many in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, education on the disease comes from more traditional means such as town hall meetings and radio programs in local languages.Survivors are key in this initiative, as they can communicate effectively to communities. Their defeat of the disease provides hope for the sick and, most importantly, encourages people to seek treatment.Perhaps more important than speaking the language, these immune survivors can help the infected without wearing all the protective gear, which allows them to touch patients.“There is hardly a family in Sierra Leone that has not been affected by the Ebola virus,” said Bayraytay, adding that many of the survivors who choose to help have lost their family and friends to the disease, making their actions even more heroic.Foster says the politics and power of fear “plays a large part in focusing the public’s attention on things that break through the monotony of the everyday.” Perhaps this explains why the incredible work many survivors have done has been under-represented in the media.This Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Brock African Heritage Recognition Committee will explore news media coverage and other aspects of the Ebola outbreak during the symposium Healing Through Communication Symposium: HIV/AIDS, Sexualities and Anti-African Racism.The symposium will take place in the Mills Room at the St. Catharines Public Library from 5-7 p.m. The free event is open to all, with light refreshments served.Then on Friday Feb. 27, the group will host the third annual Dr. Wilma Morrison African Heritage Lecture. The free lecture will be held from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in Thistle 243 at Brock University. All are welcome to attend. Holly Mohr is a research communications intern with the Office of Research Services under the Match of Minds Program at Brock University. She is a fourth-year media communications student at Brock.