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Ebola – The Stuff of Movies?

August 18, 2014

Ebola Quarantine

We are living through a period of great drama and tragic events. Horrifying as the catastrophe in Syria and Iraq undoubtedly is, the incident that has shocked me the most in the last couple of days was in Liberia. Protesters forced their way into an Ebola quarantine centre and looted the contents, including blood-stained bedding. Several inmates, suspected of having contracted the disease, vanished into the city.

One eye witness claimed that the protesters, armed with clubs, broke into the centre claiming that there was no Ebola, and that the patients had malaria. There are conflicting reports about how many of those admitted to the centre had died before the break-in, and how many have disappeared. The government claims to have moved them to a different location, but others say that several have returned to their families.

The centre is in West Point, a heavily populated area of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. The potential for further infection among the 50,000 residents of the township would seem to be high, especially if, as claimed, ignorance of Ebola and its consequences is widespread. That ignorance, combined with mistrust of the government’s motives in setting up the centre in West Point creates a heady cocktail of anger and fear that can only hinder efforts to bring the outbreak under control.

As one official commented: “This is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life. All between the houses you could see people fleeing with items looted from the patients.”

It’s the stuff of movies – perhaps. Yet most biological disaster movies are played out in Western locations, the better to scare the audiences with the prospect of panic and disorder breaking out in their own back yards. When an unknown virus causes havoc, it’s usually in the West. Valiant doctors and scientists struggle against the odds to develop a vaccine. Characters drop like flies in the process, but eventually a cure is found. Which is essentially the plot of the most recent bio-disaster movie, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

The drama being played out in Africa would be hard to stage. The horror of Ebola’s end game, with patients bleeding out of every orifice, and dying without the simple comfort of human touch. The squalor of the township to which the patients return. Waves of anger, fear and mistrust sweeping through the densely-packed community. And of course the love, the grief and the pain. Outside the township, hard-pressed, resource-starved officials struggling to deal with a crisis beyond their experience – bombarded with advice from foreign experts, trying to maintain order, wondering which way to turn as people start dying in one location after another. And finally the volunteers who tend to the sick in the full knowledge that the slightest slip in barrier nursing procedures – a piece of skin exposed – can be fatal.

I doubt if any Western movie-maker could truthfully capture the ghastly scenes of the dead and dying without half their audiences walking out of the cinema and throwing up. And besides, the true drama of the Monrovia incident lies in the emotions of the protagonists. Many would argue that the medium best suited for portraying the nuances of emotion is opera. Modern opera has brought us stranger subjects – Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Jerry Springer, for example. So I suspect that one day the agonies of the Ebola outbreak will end up most effectively portrayed in music and song. One disaster movie is much like another in terms of plot, but it’s the emotions of the protagonists that transcend the event.

A real-life Contagion is with us. It’s happening in Africa right now. But its grisly details are unlikely to be on a screen near you any time soon – thank goodness.

From → Film, Social, Theatre

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