This paper documents and analyses some of the responses to the largest Ebola outbreak on record, which took place in Uganda between September 2000 and February 2001. Four hundred and twenty five people developed clinical symptoms in three geographically distinct parts of the country (Gulu, Masindi, and Mbarara), of whom 224 (53%) died. Given the focus of previous social scientific Ebola research on experiences in communities that have been directly affected, this article expands the lens to include responses to the outbreak in local, national, and international contexts over the course of the outbreak.
Responses to the outbreak were gauged through the articles, editorials, cartoons, and letters that were published in the country’s two main English language daily national newspapers: the New Vision and the Monitor (now the Daily Monitor). All the relevant pieces from these two sources over the course of the epidemic were cut out, entered onto a computer, and the originals filed. The three a priori codes, based on the local, national, and international levels, were expanded into six, to include issues that emerged inductively during analysis. The data within each code were subsequently worked into coherent, chronological narratives.
A total of 639 cuttings were included in the analysis. Strong and varied responses to the outbreak were identified from across the globe. These included, among others: confusion, anger, and serious stigma in affected communities; medical staff working themselves to exhaustion, with some quitting their posts; patients fleeing from hospitals; calls on spiritual forces for protection against infection; a well-coordinated national control strategy; and the imposition of some international travel restrictions. Responses varied both quantitatively and qualitatively according to the level (i.e. local, national, or international) at which they were manifested.
The Ugandan experience of 2000/2001 demonstrates that responses to an Ebola outbreak can be very dramatic, but perhaps disproportionate to the actual danger presented. An important objective for any future outbreak control strategy must be to prevent excessive fear, which, it is expected, would reduce stigma and other negative outcomes. To this end, the value of openness in the provision of public information, and critically, of being seen to be open, cannot be overstated.