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Ebola: an opportunity for an interdisciplinary approach to the crisis of the ‘anthropocene’

November 11, 2014

UPDATE 3: An article I wrote for Malaysiakini on this issue. It is less the story of Ebola than what it tells us. Also, sometimes, I think we need footnotes in more ‘general’ pieces to aid those who are less subtle readers.

UPDATE 2: The Hewletts, who did in-depth study into the anthropology of the Ebola, confirm my own uninformed intuition. I am trying to get a copy of their book to read!

UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, here is a link to an article that looks at Ebola from a medical anthropological perspective

Between moving and traveling, I had not always been the most up-to-date with what was going on the world beyond what was most pressing to my immediate circumstance. When I first heard about the Ebola break-out going out in Sierra Leone, then in Guinea and Liberia, there was then a belief that the situation was not that bad because they appeared confined to the poorest African countries, and they appeared to be contained. However, things started to change when the virus was brought onto the shores of the United States, and as the virus circulates, a sense of near hysteria turned it into an international crisis. The same thing had happened with AIDs in the 1980s even if the epidemiology of that disease is different, with a less obvious and visible symptoms due to a longer incubation period.

Of course, Ebola is an international crisis. It is rare for an outbreak to be contained when there does not yet exist a systemic structure for containment (not even if you make it difficult for those from the poorest nations to enter your land of promise). Moreover, we do know that devastation at the health level also means devastation at multiple levels. History has multiple narratives and recollections of the various recorded plagues known to mankind, and their implications in the aftermath. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen more than its share of epidemic, from the SARs to avian flus. Steven Sonderbergh’s Contagion (2011) almost seems like an eerie premonition of what is to come.

But as everyone knows/suspects by now (even Bloomberg has been alternating its news concerning decelerating stocks with tactical concerns surrounding the issues of Ebola), Ebola is not just a healthcare crisis but perhaps a crisis at the level of the anthropoce and humanitarian. Injecting funds and facilities and expertise helps,  but as we know, an insular approach has not been helpful and could potentially be the impediment to finding a solution. However much experience and knowledgeable medical expertise can contribute to combating the disease, the only way to do something different than before is to also engage the interdisciplinary expertise that include not only economists, communication experts, and strategists; but also sociologists and historians of medicine (and perhaps even philosophers of science), as well as cultural geographers, who had made it their business to study the implications of healthcare and medical practices not just within the presentist regime, but across different lifetimes, to lend insights and even provide recommendations that would have escaped the purview of those very much focused specifically on contingencies. Even scientists working in other non-medical areas could use the models and knowledge base they have developed to aid greater understanding of the system surrounding the epidemic, and it is a systemic problem in itself.

However, pure scientism is not going to give the needed holistic view needed to deal with the problem beyond the fire-fighting level.  After all, even those tasked with dealing with the problem are still humans, and we need to understand how to create solutions that work with human nature and predisposition, as well as with cultural and infrastructural conditions. In fact, if interdisciplinary knowledge and application is ever needed, this is the time when it is in greatest dire need, and not merely at a sophistical or rhetorical level. Interdisciplinarity is also needed to break out of the provincialism that inhabits the practices of scientific disciplines, given that localized assumptions about epistemic practices are what can contribute to communication breakdowns

One of the problems with the whole approach to dealing with this outbreak at the policy level is the lack of engagement with the people who study both the sociology and history of infectious diseases, and the lack of ability of the people making policy decisions at the highest level in knowing how to work collaboratively on the issue (or to know how to assemble different cells of expertise) – this probably stems too from a shallow understanding of the meaning of expertise and the lack of epistemic trading between various specialists who are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers. It does not help of course that having in-depth knowledge of a disease without the accompanying ability to compare across different facets of the system of which the disease is a constituent produces half-baked attempts at arriving at any resolutions. Decision makers need to include humanists and social scientists who study the organic/human conditions in relation to the sciences that desire to palliate and alleviate the negative conditions.

That said, there is no easy way to deal with the problem, and that an interdisciplinary approach brings with it new challenges as one has to be willing to take the time to shifts one’s mental framework at a time of high duress and great difficulties. But it also the ripe time to begin forming interdisciplinary teams that would produce recommendations and alternatives through their analyses of whatever information and data there are

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