Bushmeat and the Politics of Disgust

From the Series: Ebola in Perspective

Photo by NIAID, licensed under CC BY.

"Can we not splatter the monkey all over me, please? Oh my God. I'm getting fucking pegged with Ebola monkey right now. I'm getting fragged with Ebola monkey." So says Vice Media reporter Kaj Larsen in a piece on Ebola in Liberia. He has just offered some smoked monkey to two strangers in Monrovia, and they rip the desiccated carcass in half. The scene displays the bravado of civil war-era combatants, who were always ready to one up each other in the macabre competition to look scarier than the next guy once the reporters came around.

Perhaps I shouldn't worry about Vice's portrayal of the Ebola virus, but I do. My students are probably much more likely to get their news from Vice than from the New York Times. Vice combines the reckless post-adolescent vibe of Jackass with the epistemological calling card of anthropology—Being There. They're hipper and closer to the ground level realities of places like Liberia than the square middle-aged men reading the establishment news. They take the parody of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert and add some Hunter S. Thompson excitement to it. No wonder Time Warner reportedly offered $2 billion to buy it in summer 2014. Vice reporters like Larsen happily channel American dread and disgust of West African food preferences in a way that more genteel news outlets avoid. It is probably not coincidental that one of Vice's other documentaries on Liberia focuses on Joshua Blahyi and his fantastic claims to have killed 20,000 Liberians and cannibalized hundreds.

While Kaj Larsen actually went out into the poor neighborhoods of Monrovia to report his story, many others took a similar line from the comfort of their offices. The formula had become predictable by August: Ebola is contained in exotic animals + West Africans eat these animals = a pandemic that kills its victims by causing their internal organs to liquefy. The oft-cited clichés of people bleeding from every orifice, a 90% mortality rate, and reality TV-style examples of "they eat that?!" gave the story added sensational punch.

The reality is that, in all probability, Ebola was transmitted one time only from an animal like a bat to a human, and that since then, all transmission has been from one human being to another. The cruel irony is that it is those who care for the sick—whether medical personnel, family members, or those charged with burying the dead—who are most likely to contract the disease. The further irony is that because of its lethality and relatively short incubation period, Ebola can be contained with a relatively small number of deaths, as it has been in every preceding outbreak. Just as Amartya Sen has argued in the case of famine, out-of-control Ebola is a thoroughly human-caused disaster.

The human causes begin with the historic underinvestment in the health sector by the three hardest-hit countries and their aid donors. This was compounded by the woeful lack of support provided to national health workers when it became clear that many people were dying from a combination of lack of information and the lack of the most basic medical supplies, like latex gloves. This is where bush meat comes back into the picture. An August 21, 2014, Newsweek article ominously announced that, "Smuggled Bushmeat is Ebola's Back Door to America." This empty scaremongering and its racialization of the disease have already been ably dissected by Adia Benton, but I want to link the focus on bushmeat back to the rich world's anemic response to this medical emergency.

"Bushmeat" is a term used by West African English speakers, but they are more likely to say what they want to eat—bush rat, red-backed duiker, fruit bat, wild boar, or monkey for instance. Americans eat bushmeat, though we call it "game." Thus "bushmeat" is to "game" as "hut" is to "house." But that is a linguistic move that participates in the semiotics of denigration. What I am more interested in is that some of the animals eaten in West Africa—monkeys, dogs, pangolins, bats—inspire feelings of disgust. Other animals—boar, duiker (small deer), wild birds and tortoises—do not.

The thought of someone eating a chimpanzee, a dog, or a bat produces an immediate, visceral effect for many of us. It's an involuntary reflex, this feeling of disgust, and, as Julie Livingston and William Ian Miller have written, it's a sentiment with powerful political valences. To look on a fellow human with a feeling of disgust is to downgrade them, their needs, and their claims on us. It is to open the door to a line of reasoning that is very similar to the one that prevailed when the Rwandan genocide was portrayed as the play of ancient "tribal" hatreds and thus beyond the ability of outsiders to intervene. The disgust evoked allows feelings of repulsion, helplessness, and indifference to mix together for those who could do more—much more—to help. Talk about eating apes like chimpanzees also calls up specters of cannibalism, like those portrayed in Vice's other documentaries on Liberia.

The real story about Ebola in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone is that these three countries, after two decades of civil war and/or internal turmoil, have invested inordinate proportions of their budgets into placating, reforming, and shoring up their security forces and almost nothing in health sectors that were already decimated by years of war and neglect. Those were priorities shared by their donor partners. The U.S. invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reforming the Liberian Army, undoubtedly a worthy and important undertaking, but only a fraction as much on the health sector. It is under these conditions that a military cordoning off of affected areas becomes the preferred form of public health intervention. When you have a lot of relatively well-equipped soldiers and a small number of poorly-equipped doctors and nurses, you go with your soldiers. This helps explain the fact that the public health strategy of choice in West Africa today is the same as that used in fourteenth-century Europe during plague epidemics. The continual focus on the consumption of bushmeat (as if every case were caused by eating monkeys and bats) only helps to leave such bad policies unquestioned.