Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

Locals observe foreign health officials burying an Ebola victim. WHO Guidelines for Ebola Burials

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak claimed about 11,000 lives and transcended country borders. Ebola presents with frightening symptoms: more frightening was that it kept spreading. Thanks to Anthropologists, health officials knew why: local burial practices endangered the lives of those partaking in burial rituals. We will look at how those practices influenced Ebola policies and procedures:

Initial Resistance

When the first responders to Ebola came to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, they were determined to stop Ebola’s transmission at any cost. The Ebola virus is transferred through infectious bodily fluids, so foreign health officials took over disposing of the dead and developed a procedure to handle mass casualties. The African locals did not respond well to this practice, often resisting health officials’ efforts to bury the dead.

Anthropologists’ Observations

Anthropologists were tasked with understanding the locals’ resistance. Anthropologists discovered common practices and beliefs among locals:

  1. Handling of the body with the bare hands
  2. “Love Touch”: loved ones either touch the face or lie on top of the deceased in order to unify the living and ancestral spirits, and even receive spiritual gifts from the deceased.
  3. Importance of a proper burial: many locals believe in life after death. If a proper burial does not occur, then the deceased cannot achieve spirithood, and therefore the angry spirit will return and punish the living relatives.
  4. Mistrust of government: foreign health officials had to have communicated with the government to assist, so many Africans thought their governments did not respect them. As a result, many locals mistrusted their leaders and did not want to comply.


Anthropologists realized that in isolating deceased Ebola victims, the health officials were dishonoring locals’ culture and beliefs. Anthropologists relayed these findings to policymakers, who formed coalitions with government officials, tribal and religious leaders in order to come up with burial techniques that would honor the dead and living while halting Ebola.  As a result, locals allowed their leaders and foreign officials to assist and Ebola transmission slowed. It was one of the first times that foreign health officials recognized that religious and cultural practices and political beliefs strongly influence health promotion techniques on an epidemic level. They adjusted their procedures accordingly.


It was important to recognize the cultural factors at play, but was recognition and adjustment too late? How many have to die before world aid organizations adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate many different cultures and societies? Although these organizations are powerful, they sometimes adopt a “savior” mentality, and forget that they can still learn. Another outbreak could happen: public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism.

Works Cited:

Manguvo, Angellar and Benford Mafuvadze.”The Impact of Traditional and Religious Practices on Spread of Ebola in West Africa.” The Pan African Medical Journal. Vol 22 Issue 9. 10 October 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4709130/

Maxmen, Amy. “How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions.” National Geographic. 30 Jan 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150130-ebola-virus-outbreak-epidemic-sierra-leone-funerals/

4 responses to “Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

  1. Jakara Griffin

    This article is interesting because I was unaware of the influence local burial practices had on the spread of Ebola, and I wonder what compromises were made to satisfy local burial practices while avoiding physical contact with the dead. I also wonder how many unnecessary lives could have been saved if anthropologists were initially included in the plans to minimize the spread of Ebola. As Alex pointed out in the article, these aid organizations, especially the Western ones, spend millions of dollar and energy to improve the living conditions and health of people globally, but have they implemented efficient, practical methods of assistance in the eyes of local people they are serving? Would these organizations continue to have these issues if there were more anthropologists in positions of power?
    This article also intrigues me because it reminds me of the miscommunication some doctors experience with their patients who may have different religious and cultural backgrounds. Most of the time, this lack of understanding between both parties results in patient noncompliance.

  2. Claire Dillenbeck

    I really appreciated this post; it’s such an important and relevant topic. Your final sentence, “public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism” is a great summary. To achieve public safety progress and implement public health interventions, it is crucial to respect and consider the cultural practices or the interventions will not be successful. This is something we talked about a lot in my study abroad program in Costa Rica. One example our professor gave us was about a community dealing with water contaminated with pathogens. Boiling the water seemed to be the simplest and most economically efficient solution to the government, but the community completely refused to boil their water. They believed the water was alive and their cosmology placed great importance on its power. Boiling the water killed it. Once this was understood, the health workers started a discussion and came to an understanding with the people that the water was sick and needed treatment, and alternate interventions were implemented. It is important to have an open dialogue so that the public health officials understand cultural practices and the people understand the purpose of the interventions, and a strategy that respects both can be found.

  3. I completely agree with the concluding statements. After taking multiple anthropology courses over the span of my college career, I have learned so much about the vast impact culture can play in almost every realm of life. It seems almost surprising that government officials and medical relief organizations would initially find cultural factors superfluous.
    I also like what Jakara mentioned about miscommunication between doctors and patients. Having experience taking my grandparents to various doctor’s appointments, I have been able to see that the most effective way to ensure patient compliance is to find a treatment plan that suits the patients life.

  4. Three years ago, we were shocked by the outbreak of Ebola and when Emory accepted an Ebola patient, it scared me about whether this disease could be out of control in the United States. This article allows me to think about how cultural traditions could conflict with public health issues. Cooperation to control Ebola entails a mutual understanding of both cultural and treatment. Only when both sides reach compromise, it is the moment that we could take control of the disease. I also realized by looking this article that burying practice in some cultures could cause serious public health issues.

    When reading the article, I was wondering whether the foreigners were aware of funeral practices and honoring local cultures when they carried out a plan to control the disease. If culture context is not considered, they could run into trouble and their methods could not be implemented or approved by local government. It makes me realized how important should we consider culture when we try to enter a place that is foreign to us.

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