Writing the Disease: Ebola ’76

Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus, an RNA virus (filovirus) causing haemorrhagic fever.

Ebola ‘76 tells a story of Ebola’s arrival to Sudan through Lewis, a factory worker who is infected in Kinshasa (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and takes the virus back to Nzara, in Sudan —now South Sudan. While the novel talks about society and contagion in ways similar to what we have read before, there is a crucial difference: Ebola is a character. Although some texts, particularly The Ghost Map seem to portray their disease as a character, none personify it like Ebola ‘76 does. Ebola in the text is very much a personified character that seems to have its own agenda.

Furthermore, the way that the author describes Lewis and many other tragedies within the book, strips away the need to empathize to such a story where a disaster of an outbreak happens due to a mere mourning factory worker. What this does for a reader is create is sense of discomfort because our natural approach to these kinds of uncontrollable situations is to empathize, yet that is difficult with the narrative of Ebola ‘76.

The narration of Ebola within the book causes us to question who really is the protagonist in this novel? Yes we have a main character that is present for most of the novel, but Ebola is certainly always present in all the scenarios, serving more than just a disease. Ebola here is humanized with human-like qualities, such as to smile and migrate along with the human it infests, forcing our attention to its entity as we read this novel. Ebola has much more of an impact than just being a pathogenic and contagious disease, it dominates the narrative to its what some may say its “malicious intent.” What we make of this change of interpretation is unclear.

It is important to highlight, too, that Amir Tag Elsir is a doctor. Which leads to the question, what is Ebola?

This video by Kurzgesagt  — In a Nutshell explains the nature of Ebola succinctly.

The video above provides a window into Ebola and aspects surrounding it: while most of the video talks about how Ebola works in the body and the way in which it spreads —albeit the video is a bit Western- or American-centric. The last minute, however, hints at a minor detail that’s also present in Ebola ‘76: societal spread of an idea. The novel presents the spread and parody of the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen! You are kindly requested to refrain from shaking the performer’s hand, whatever the extent of your admiration” (13), the spread of terror after the epidemic reaches Nzara (87), rumours that specialists were coming (93). Ideas spread like disease, and Kurzgesagt’s video mentions this too, by comparing the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to malaria: the news of the Ebola epidemic spread fear and worry due to Ebola’s rapid —albeit localized— spread and its brutality.

A prominent aspect of Ebola ’76 is the focus on the individual transmissions of the disease within the community. Elsir highlights the general apathy and ignorance of the characters towards the illness, and he demonstrates how this obliviousness to the threat contributes to the ability for it to spread.  Characters’ disregard for cautionary measures – such as protected sex or avoiding physical contact with others – shows how simple decisions can have life-ending implications. Elsir’s emphasis on these interactions between two people and the infection is one that has been unencountered in other works we’ve studied. He seems to intend this as a warning: even in this modern day, Ebola remains a threat that can cross borders and infect communities. Its ability to do so is enabled through a chain of personal poor (and deadly) decisions.

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