Guinea Horror

The Fear That Killed Eight Ebola Workers

They were sent in to help educate villagers about how to ward off the lethal virus. Then fear took over and the machetes came out.

09.20.14 10:55 AM ET

At the time of Wednesday’s announcement out of Guinea that seven of nine missing Ebola workers had been found dead, we knew little. Men with knives had abducted members of a group sent there to spread awareness about the disease. Two relief workers were missing; the rest, dead. Six suspects were in custody.

By Friday morning, we knew more. These details, the stuff of horror films. A local government group of relief workers—a mix of doctors, religious leaders, and journalists—had arrived Monday to educate the remote southeastern village of Womey about Ebola. Just 24 hours after their arrival, violence broke out, allegedly sparked by the false belief that a disinfectant being sprayed was actually the disease itself. An angry mob brandishing machetes, stones, and knives lashed out.

Some of the relief workers were lucky enough to escape to nearby villages. At least nine were not. Three had their throats slashed. By then, villagers themselves began to flee. Those still in Womey cut down trees and fashioned makeshift blockades so no one else could get inside the village. Two days later, when authorities did, they found eight bodies in the latrine system of the local school. Among the dead, three local radio journalists, two medical officers, and a preacher.

It’s difficult to refrain from instantly demonizing the perpetrators, or focus on anything other than their crime. In a story so horrific, the grisliest details win the audience. The killers murdered, in cold blood, the very people that came to save them. It’s easy to call such actions evil—but entirely irresponsible to declare, with absolute certainty, that they were driven by anything less than unimaginable fear.

In an environment of uncertainty, fixating on the accused is comforting. Men can be captured, arrested, imprisoned. They’re a conquerable enemy. But that narrative, the one of senseless, blood-hungry murderers roaming the villages of West Africa serves no one. The truth is likely more nuanced and, as such, more terrifying.

The truth is that a horrific, incurable virus is ravaging Guinea—and at least three other countries in West Africa. That there is a rapidly shrinking number of doctors left to treat the thousands who are already sick and the millions that could be next. That the vast majority of those who enter hospitals, never come out. That, in the absence of an explanation as to why, paranoia takes over. That a few white and Western-trained doctors have intentionally used disease to harm Africans in the past. That this unfortunate truth makes the heroic ones fighting courageously there now, the object of a very real fear.

We know little about the identity of the six suspects, but a lot about the country in which they live. With an estimated population of 11 million, Guinea has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line, and 20 percent in extreme poverty. UNICEF estimates that less than 50 percent have access to clean drinking water. In 2013, the International Monetary Fund measured Guinea's gross domestic product per capita at just $564 (in the U.S. the same year it was $53K). Since March, a country already struggling to meet the basic needs of its citizens has been battling a lethal disease they have never seen. Without a cure for the virus, more than half of those infected die within days of contracting it. With the rate of physicians per 1,000 citizens at less than 1 percent, there aren't enough doctors in the whole country to explain why.

According to the World Health Organization's most recent report, there have already been over 950 confirmed cases of Ebola in Guinea—a set of numbers which the director of the organization called a "vast underestimate" of the reality. Over 600 of those cases have resulted in death. In all of Guinea, there are just two official Ebola Treatment Centres, bringing the total capacity of beds to 130—which meets less than 13 percent of the demand. Out of the small number of health care workers in the nation, 60 have already been infected. Thirty-one have died.

By the time the Ebola workers arrived to Womey—on a vital mission that may have very well helped it—the village was likely overcome by fear and panic. Two months earlier in Kolo Bengou, a remote part of Guinea 400 miles from the capital, terrified villagers attacked ambulances and dismantled bridges to keep doctors out. In Guéckédou the same month, reported The New York Times, a local leader perpetuated the mistrust, telling his people: “There is no root, no leaf, no animal that can cure you. Don’t be fooled.”

Uninvited strangers in hazmat suits could alarm even the stablest of communities. But in a village crippled by poverty, tyrannized by war, and now suddenly overcome with a strange new illness, it is likely scarier than the wildest of nightmares. The men who killed these courageous workers committed a heinous crime. Perhaps they were simply depraved. Perhaps, instead, they had reached a desperation we can't quite fathom. Perhaps they were merely trying to protect their families, their friends, their community and truly believed that this was the only way. Condemning them obscures the larger message to be taken from this atrocious crime. It is Ebola that is still winning. Ebola, not those who it has driven to commit evil acts, that is the true enemy.

Terry O’Sullivan spent three years working in public health in neighboring Sierra Leone and saw the need for treating powerless, poor communities with sensitivity. “This tragic event highlights both the tremendous power of rumors and fear of the unknown,” he said, now as the director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security Policy Research at the University of Akron. “That applies to both local politicians—who, in countries like Sierra Leone, often treat poor rural villagers callously—as well as outsiders coming in with assurances that what they know what’s best.”

It’s a lesson that’s been learned much closer to home, too, O’Sullivan said. “As Americans found out during the early years of the HIV AIDS crisis, fear of a deadly unknown disease can cause people to react negatively—even violently—out of fear.”

Research contributed by Brandy Zadrozny.