What Should Guide Africans in the Fight Against Ebola: Religion or Science?

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Fri, 10 Oct 2014 Source: Igwe, Leo

Leo Igwe

The outbreak of Ebola offers an ample opportunity for Africans to re-examine the public health care system and disease control mechanisms, and then take urgent measures to beef up their medical infrastructure. We need to seize this opportunity and get our health care acts together. In fact the spread of Ebola presents us a chance to re-think our policies and improve our medical institutions. Africans need to take a clear stand on what should be the guide in matters concerning public health management. Is it religion or science? Is it the church(mosque, shrine or temple) or the laboratories and research institutes?

I mean, what should inform our decisions when diseases like Ebola strike? Is it reason or religious dogma? Is it evidence based knowledge or ancient 'revealed' texts? Who should Africans look up to when diseases are ravaging their communities? Is it the pastors and prophets, the bishops, imams, sheikhs, ulamas, mallams, marabouts, local diviners who communicate with spirits and ancestors? Or should we look up to our nurses, doctors, other health workers and scientists for guidance and counseling?  Should we rely on teachings contained in the 'holy' texts- the Bible, Koran or Hadith- written centuries ago by those who thought that disease-causing micro-organisms were demons and evils spirits that should be exorcised? Or should we base our decisions on products of cutting-edge research and experiments, on evidence-based falsifiable medical knowledge and practice? Should Africans look to Mecca or Jerusalem, to the Vatican or to the Caliphates or to the OIC for guidance and declarations on what to do?

In what should we Africans invest our limited resources when it comes to health issues? Is it in building mosques and churches, in sponsoring pilgrimages to Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome? Is it in paying imams and pastors, in organising national prayer meetings and faith healing sessions? Is it in funding religious indoctrination and proselytization? Is it in building sharia courts and paying sharia police? Should Africans not channel their resources into funding science education, medical research and development, hiring and paying scientists? Should Africans not devote their limited funding to building hospitals, laboratories and clinics, and to training medical personnel?

These questions have become necessary now African countries are struggling to contain an epidemic that is threatening to destroy their economies. The region's medical infrastructure is in shambles. The response mechanism is weak. African countries cannot always be going cap in hand to beg for resources which they can muster if they could get their priorities right.

Yes, our main problem is the misplacement of priorities and we need to acknowledge and rectify that now. The spread of Ebola disease has exposed the fragile public health system in the region. It has revealed the inability of countries to provide a robust response when health care emergencies arise. And part of the reason for this deplorable situation is the pervasiveness of religious and superstitious beliefs and a disdain for science and evidence-based knowledge and education. Today Africa has more scientists but less scientific thinking, more schools but less education, more philosophers but less critical and logical thinking, more hospitals less medicine.

Dogma and superstition tyrannize over our lives.

Religion plays a key role in the health care decisions. And this should not be the case. Health care management is so tied and entangled with religion and superstitious notions like the belief in witchcraft. Many Africans still think that prayers can cure them when they get sick or that people can make other ill through witchcraft. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for a 'therapeutic' prayer. Disease carry witches are imaginary. But many Africans still hold tenaciously to these medically dangerous opinions.

For many Africans in rural communities, local diviners, mallams, pastors and imams, spiritualists and soothsayers are the first port of call when they are ill. Some people go to hospitals only when they are at the point of death, when it is too late to treat the disease. That is when they seek out evidence-based medical care. Others use a double barrel approach. They patronise the spiritualists and the doctors at the same. They believe that the medication which doctors provide in hospitals cannot be effective without the will of God, Jesus or Allah as the case may be. So many sick people in Africa invest much of their time and energy visiting one faith healer or mallam after another. They go from one prayer camp to another in search of miracles and divine healing Some people have suspended their medication following some prophecy, divination or ministration from a 'faith doctor'.

Most Africans believe that their recovery from any illness depends on God, that the almighty Allah is the most competent doctor. If this notion is correct, there will be no reason for the high mortality rate in the region. So this absurd belief has been detrimental to Africans because it makes the people and their governments not to channel as much resources into medical research and infrastructure as they channel into religious programs and infrastructure. People in other regions are researching and experimenting to find cures while we Africans are praying and expecting miracles!

So when health emergencies like Ebola arise, people are confused and in a panic. Their 'Dr' Jesus and 'Dr' Allah suddenly become impotent and incapable of helping them. Their faith is unable to heal or cure the ailment. Today, the fear of Ebola not the fear of God or Allah-in whose name many Africans have been killed, maimed and destroyed- has become the beginning of wisdom.

Wake up! Africans wake up from this religious and superstitious slumber.

Now take a look at the measures that have been taken so far to contain Ebola. Are they informed by religion? No. Are they drawn from the Koran or the Bible? No. Were they dictated by Islamic scholars, Ulamas, Sangomas, prophets and gurus, theologians or diviners? No. They are evidence-based measures. And these measures have proved effective in countries and communities despite the religious belief or unbelief.

In West Africa, religious organisations look to governments, the world health organisations and other medical experts not to God or Allah-not to 'Allahmen' or god women- for medical advice and guidance. Many religious bodies have suspended certain rituals that involve body contact like shaking and laying of hands as part of the measures to contain the disease.  Is it because Jesus said so in the Bible? No. Is it because Allah or Prophet Muhammad said so in the Koran or the Hadith? No. Is it because of some purported communication from the gods, ancestors and spirits to local diviner in one obscure corner of an African city or village? Not at all. Is it because medical science says so? Of course yes. In fact the measures taken so far to combat Ebola have nothing to do with religion but everything to do with science and experimentation.

And this is what should be the case. When it comes to matters concerning health care, disease control and management, evidence-based tested knowledge, not superstition or 'divine' revelation should inform our decisions.

Science, not religion, should be the guide.

Leo Igwe is a skeptic from Nigeria

Columnist: Igwe, Leo