Friday, 9 January 2015

Commodification of Survivors

Ebola survivors have been through hell.  Just imagine the pain, the fear, staying in an Ebola Treatment Centre with people dying all around you every day.  But they are the lucky ones.  And as the number of cases grows, the number of survivors also grows. 

They are in great demand. 

·       To make the case that it is possible to survive, they are used in radio, television, posters, even smart phone apps. 

·       Because they have antibodies to the disease, there are stories that their blood is traded on the black market and more reputable stories about the use of plasma therapy.  So their stories and their bodies are valuable.

·       They have been called on to work where others dare not, most frequently with children whose parents have died from EVD in OICCs.  (Let’s hope these are short term jobs as the crisis ends.)

Nina and I have been interviewing people on the streets about what they know about Ebola, what they do to protect themselves, whose messages do they trust, and so on.  But many of our interview subjects have not come close enough to the system to have much to say about it.  So earlier this week we were thinking that it might be nice to talk to some survivors, to hear about their experiences in treatment and to get their recommendations for how to improve the system. 

A colleague here shared the contact information of a survivor, and head of a survivors group organizing in Freetown.  I called to see if we could set up a time to talk, and hear more about the group they were organizing.  He wasn’t sure, and complained that he’d already been called on to talk on the national television station.  He said he’d have to get something out of it.  I asked how much and he said $100.  In all my years of interviewing people in Sierra Leone, this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for an interview.  I certainly don’t blame the man for trying to get paid.  When I told the story to one of my Sierra Leonean friends who works in the NGO world, she said he’s probably being contacted by NGOs who are scrambling to put together proposals to work with survivors and get some of the Ebola money that is reaching the international NGOs now and probably soon to trickle down to the local NGOs.  To me, it was just a very clear symbol of the commodification of survivors.

One last story.  A former colleague of mine lost six members of his wife’s family to Ebola over a week and a half period in October. The wife told us her awful story. One of her brothers was sick, but survived.  Over a beer, I asked my former colleague how his brother-in-law is doing now, or whether they ever talk about what happened in the Ebola Treatment Centre.  He said he doesn’t want to talk about it, people dying all around him.  So now my colleague says when they come together they “play and laugh” and try to help him forget.  It’s not easy. 

Honestly, this is why I believe in ethnography as a method. When I was in Sierra Leone during the war and working with former child soldiers I had the chance to take the time to build relationships with people over time.  I never asked anyone “what happened to you during the war?”  We talked about football, or America, or whatever.  If they felt like opening up, I was ready to listen, but to ask someone directly to talk about their trauma always seemed unethical or even inhuman to me. 

No comments:

Post a Comment