SWM-011: The Ebola Crisis as Seen from the Lens of International Social Work

October 17, 2014 @ 7:53 pm


Social Work Matters podcast coverWith the deaths of thousands of people in West Africa, the World Health Organization has called the latest Ebola outbreak “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times.”  But does this reality, and the threat the virus poses to other countries, justify the sense of panic now pervading the United States?

The nation had its first Ebola scare when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who was visiting his family in Dallas, was diagnosed—he also became the disease’s first victim on American soil. And now two nurses treating Duncan have tested positive, suggesting that our health facilities are not as prepared as the Centers for Disease Control claims for treating Ebola patients.

We asked our first two podcast guests of the 2014–2015 academic year to comment on the American response to the pandemic from the lens of international social work. They are Columbia School of Social Work Associate Professor Louisa Gilbert and Angela Aifah, a Ph.D. student affiliated with the Global Health Research Center of Central Asia (GHRCCA), which Dr. Gilbert co-directs with Willma and Albert Musher Professor Nabila El-Bassel. For ten years, GHRCCA has worked on limiting the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/STI, Hepatitis C, and TB among vulnerable populations in Central Asian countries. Angela Aifa, who is from Ghana, West Africa, is researching coping mechanisms for people with diabetes in low- and middle-income countries and will write her doctoral thesis under Professor El-Bassel’s supervision.



  • Louisa Gilbert acknowledges that the crisis created by the spread of Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a “serious public health threat.”
  • She thinks, however, that the United States is overreacting. “Huge stigma and fear … easily blows out of control with these viruses.” She believes that Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was right to predict, as he did at his September 30 news conference, that the disease will not spread widely in this country. “I’m optimistic…that we can control it.”
  • She worries more about Americans will behave towards people from West African countries. From her experience in Kazakhstan, she knows that a tremendous amount of stigma surrounds people who are associated with infectious diseases, which in turn, makes it difficult for sufferers to reach out and get care—thus compounding the problem.
  • Angela Aifah says that the spread of Ebola proves the point that health is not limited to a specific region.
  • That said, she, too, is worried about stigmatization of Africans and how one or a few isolated cases in this country can scare people.
  • Aifah points out that at this moment the crisis is not about us but still largely about the West African region. We should be paying greater attention to the needs of health workers in countries where there has been widespread transmission (Seirra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia). Unlike their Western counterparts, they lack the resources for containing the spread of deadly viruses like Ebola.
  • Aifah recently made her first visit to Kazakhstan to observe the work of the Global Health Research Center of Central Asia. She could see that the stigma attached to those with TB affects every aspect of the person’s life, including mental health. In her view, it is not enough to address the physiological aspects of disease; investment must also be made in mental health and psychosocial support for victims and their families.