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Biosocial Approaches to the 2013-2016 Ebola Pandemic

Health and Human Rights Journal
By Eugene T. Richardson, Mohamed Bailor Barrie, J. Daniel Kelly, Yusupha Dibba, Songor Koedoyoma, and Paul Farmer
December 22, 2015

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Despite more than 25 documented outbreaks of Ebola since 1976, our understanding of the disease is limited, in particular the social, political, ecological, and economic forces that promote (or limit) its spread.

In the following study, we seek to provide new ways of understanding the 2013-2016 Ebola pandemic. We use the term, ‘pandemic,’ instead of ‘epidemic,’ so as not to elide the global forces that shape every localized outbreak of infectious disease. By situating life histories via a biosocial approach, the forces promoting or retarding Ebola transmission come into sharper focus.

We conclude that biomedical and culturalist claims of causality have helped obscure the role of human rights failings (colonial legacies, structural adjustment, exploitative mining companies, enabled civil war, rural poverty, and the near absence of quality health care to name but a few) in the genesis of the 2013-16 pandemic. From early 20th century smallpox and influenza outbreaks to 21st century Ebola, transnational relations of inequality continue to be embodied as viral disease in West Africa, resulting in the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

“To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe. Who paid the expenses of the noble enterprise I don’t know…”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)

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