07 May 2015: The concept of ‘Ubuntu’ should be applied to the ethical treatment of Ebola - and other neglected tropical diseases – in order to change the way that African countries respond to the disease. This is according to Professor Thaddeus Metz, Humanities Research Professor, University of Johannesburg.
Prof Metz interprets the word ‘Ubuntu’ – which means humanity to others - as requiring ‘honour for other people in communal relationships’ and ‘sharing a way of life’. He was speaking at a packed session of the Ethics, Human Rights and Medical Law conference on the third day of the 5th annual Africa Health Exhibition & Congress, which took place from 5 to 7 May at the Gallagher Convention Centre.
Prof Metz said, “Roughly speaking, at the core of Ubuntu is the need to act in a loving way and, in this perspective, wrong behaviour is unloving. I think an Ubuntu ethic recommends that Africans must take the lead when responding to tropical African diseases. I’m afraid the African Union did not do this with Ebola.”
The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the largest Ebola outbreak in history, having infected over 26 000 people and killing around 11 000 of those infected with the virus.
Prof Metz said, “Compare the $1 million given by the African Union (AU) for the treatment of the Ebola outbreak with the $1 billion that was given by Western institutions. Also consider the fact that the AU took action only after the World Health Organisation had declared Ebola a global public health emergency.
“Honouring communal relationships means that actual ties of which one is a part encumbered one and have a moral priority. This means that countries that identify with each other have a particularly weighty obligation to help each other. African societies by and large share a way of life and this imposes an obligation to help in need.”
Prof Metz’s words were echoed by the next speaker, Dr Terna Nomhwange, National Consultant, World Health Organisation, Lagos, Nigeria. Dr Nomhwange said, “Who are we waiting for to take action? Ten thousand people died from Ebola in the recent outbreak and why are we only talking about it now? Ebola is not a new disease. We have known of the virus since 1976 – nearly 40 years.
“Why have we not yet had clinical trials to deal with it? Why is there not yet a vaccine to deal with a 40-year-old disease? Has it received only little attention because it has affected mostly poor people? If we answer some of these questions, maybe we will be prepared for the next 50 years.”
Professor Sylvester C Chima, Head: Programme of Bio and Research Ethics and Medical Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, concurred in his presentation, as follows: “We’ve known about Ebola for decades but nobody cared. This was partly because initially the reported numbers were small, and also because, initially, poor people in remote areas were dying. As my colleague Professor Metz was saying, we have to be outraged. African lives matter! A life has to matter or else we won’t be able to do something about it. Where is the Ubuntu?”
Prof Chima added that Africans, as a population group, are vulnerable due to impediments such as poverty, education, underdevelopment and a lack of alternative means of obtaining healthcare – and yet the right to attaining the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being, as outlined by the WHO. Working towards equitable levels of global health is exacerbated by the problem of the ‘haves versus the have-nots’.
Prof Metz’s concluded his presentation, at Africa Health, by saying, “For me, there is one way in which those who practise Ubuntu would do well to borrow from the West in this particular regard: we need a greater sense of outrage when Africans are exposed to tragedy. It doesn’t cost a lot put together a march or write a letter to the New York Times. Simply shout out – don’t neglect them!”
Prof Chima echoed this: “Africans have to start helping themselves. We need to become more attentive. We need to become more outraged at diseases like Ebola to make things happen and implement change.”