Ebola: How a People's Science Helped End an Epidemic (African Arguments) (Paperback)

Ebola: How a People's Science Helped End an Epidemic (African Arguments) Cover Image
This book is currently on backorder. Please call or email for availability.


In 2013, the largest Ebola outbreak in history swept across West Africa, claiming thousands of lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea and sending the international community into panic. By 2014, experts were grimly predicting that millions would be infected within months, and a huge international control effort was mounted to contain the virus. Yet paradoxically, at this point the disease was already going into decline in Africa itself. Why did outside observers get it so wrong?

Paul Richards draws on his extensive firsthand experience in Sierra Leone to argue that the international community’s alarmed response failed to take account of local expertise and common sense. Crucially, Richards shows that the humanitarian response to the disease was most effective in those areas where it supported community initiatives already in place, such as giving local people agency in terms of disposing of bodies. In turn, the international response dangerously hampered recovery when it ignored or disregarded local knowledge.

One of the first books to provide an in-depth analysis of the recent pandemic, Ebola offers a clear-eyed account of how and why the disease spread, and why the predictions of international commentators were so misguided. By learning from these mistakes and successes, we can better understand how to harness the power of local communities during future humanitarian health crises.

About the Author

Paul Richards is emeritus professor of technology and agrarian development at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He is the author of No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts, among other books.

Praise For…

“A valuable reflection of the experiences of affected communities and aid workers in Sierra Leone. This book is a must for all disease control professionals in Africa and beyond. The book is also exceptionally well written and easily accessible to interested novices.”
— Ger J. Steenbergen, First Secretary of Health, Netherlands Embassy in Ghana

“Richards convincingly argues the broader lesson for containing future epidemics should always be a response embracing ‘common sense, improvisation, distributed practical knowledge, and collective action.’”
— Publishers Weekly

“Ebola’s focus on the comparatively poorly documented role of local responses to the epidemic makes it a must-read for all involved in epidemics, epidemiology and public health. . . . Richards wisely nods to the key role of national and international epidemic control. But his central thesis is that rapid local adaptation and common sense led to the Ebola epidemic’'s downturn. He terms this community action a ‘people's science’ of Ebola control. The book abounds with real-life examples from his long-term research in Sierra Leone.”
— Nature

“Richards offers important insights, especially concerning the central issue of burial practices, one of the epidemic’s main routes of infection. . . . Richards’s argument is a surprisingly optimistic one. The Ebola epidemic pitted an underfunded and sluggish international public-health infrastructure against supposedly ignorant rural communities. Doomsday did not result.”
— Economist

“In this provocative book, Richards argues that the international response may actually have extended the epidemic’s duration, as it offered no medical solution (no cure or vaccine is yet available) and slowed the ability of the affected populations to develop the cultural and behavioral adaptations that were ultimately the key to defeating the virus—for example, changes to practices around care for the ill and burial of the dead. Too often, the well-intentioned international response was shaped by a top-down logic that sought to impose novel practices on people rather than work with them to adapt their existing customs to the new reality.”
— Foreign Affairs

“Richards a lifelong aid worker and researcher, has penned a foundational text informed by his years of experience in Africa—specifically, Sierra Leone. . . . The work’s key strength is that it provides a strong profile on local knowledge as it relates to community health and population health in times of epidemic.”
— Choice

“[A] first-hand analysis of the complicated situation that arose from the outbreak, a fascinating story of the success and failures of experts, volunteers, and village people. . . . Eye-opening reading.”
— Medicine, Conflict and Survival

“In this provocative book, Richards argues that the international response may actually have extended the epidemic’s duration.”
— Foreign Affairs

“Excellent and innovative. . . . Thoroughly researched.”
— The Conversation

Ebola is not, however, a story of the epidemic, even if much of the story is woven into it. It is rather a handbook and a message of instruction for handling future outbreaks.”
— Times Literary Supplement

“With some forty years’ experience living, working and writing about the Mano River Region, Paul Richards’s manuscript provides a succinct, erudite, and important contribution to this debate.”
— Journal of Modern African Studies
Product Details
ISBN: 9781783608584
ISBN-10: 1783608587
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication Date: September 15th, 2016
Pages: 300
Language: English
Series: African Arguments