• Department of History, West Virginia University
  • Abstract Title: When Public Health and Politics Converge: The Ebola Epidemic and Coronavirus Pandemic in Sierra Leone

Bio: Dr. Tamba M’bayo is an associate professor of history at West Virginia University, where he teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in African history. His first book was on Muslim interpreters in colonial Senegal, a product of his research interest in the colonial and post-colonial history of French West Africa. Dr. M’bayo’s current research for his second book will trace Sierra Leone’s long history of epidemic episodes from 1787 to the Ebola outbreak of 2013. Provisionally titled “From ‘White Man’s Grave’ to Ebola: Sierra Leone’s History of Epidemics, 1787- 2015,” the study seeks a more profound understanding of the dynamics of cultural, social, political, and environmental conditions that have influenced disease eruptions in the country. During the 2019-20 academic year, Dr. M’bayo conducted archival research for his book in Sierra Leone as a Fulbright US Scholar.

Abstract: During the Ebola epidemic (2013-2015) and the Coronavirus pandemic (2019-2020), public health concerns took center stage in Sierra Leone, as in other countries, due to the threat posed by widespread disease outbreaks to not only people, but also the country’s health system and economy. Public health discourse became highly politicized as political leaders, government officials, and ordinary citizens engaged in vitriolic debates about public health emergency, quarantine, lockdown, curfew, handwashing, masking, social distancing, and limits on public gathering and funerals for the infected dead. Against this backdrop, this paper utilizes public health as a lens through which to examine its intersection with politics and assess Sierra Leone’s responses to both the Ebola epidemic and the Coronavirus pandemic. Drawing on the extant literature on epidemics and pandemics, oral interviews, news and social media accounts and participant-observation, the paper argues that despite the problems posed by its weak health system and inadequate financial resources, Sierra Leone appeared to be in a better position than it was during the Ebola epidemic to plan early and respond promptly to the Coronavirus pandemic, at least to minimize its spread and fatalities.

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