What Ebola Can Teach Us About Covid-19

An interview with medical anthropologist Paul Farmer on his new book

Alexandra Sifferlin
Elemental
Published in
10 min readNov 18, 2020

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

In 2014, an Ebola virus began to spread throughout Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. The pandemic took the lives of tens of thousands of people and offered acute lessons in infectious disease response and human nature — lessons that we would do well to remember today.

Anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, the co-founder of Partners in Health (PIH) and a Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, experienced the pandemic firsthand as PIH was one of the aid groups to respond to Ebola in West Africa. His ambitious new book, Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, looks back at the pandemic and even further into the history of three affected countries to examine how historic tragedies like the slave trade and civil war have consequences that reverberate for decades.

One of the lessons of the 2014 Ebola pandemic, Farmer argues, is that so much of what might have helped was never tried — that the deadliness of the pandemic could have been lessened. As the world careens into yet another wave of Covid-19 cases, the message resonates. Elemental spoke to Farmer about his book and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elemental: Your book dives deep into the history of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, including significant focus on the slave trade. What was your motivation for making this history such a major part of your book?

Paul Farmer: Ninety-nine percent of the experience of the Ebola epidemic was dealing with the immediacy of the patients’ needs. But as the months went by, there was more and more thinking about how this has happened before. We really need to understand the ways in which not only history set us up for these kinds of problems, but how forgetting history also sets us up. It’s the same now: A novel coronavirus is by definition new, but it’s not like we never met another coronavirus or never had a previous pandemic. Every time we think we’re seeing something new it’s either not new or there’s something old about it.

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Elemental

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that