Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Explaining and Experiencing Ebola

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

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Dr Jane Stevens Crawshaw recently contributed to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series Beyond Belief on ‘Plague Narratives and Ebola’ which sought to explore the impact of religion and ideas of sin, guilt and punishment on explanations for the current, devastating epidemic of Ebola.

The programme’s three contributors contextualised responses to Ebola in relation to plague.  In particular, Dr Stevens Crawshaw used her research expertise on the development of quarantine.  This policy, first developed as a fully-fledged public health measure in fifteenth-century Venice, applied a liturgically- and religiously-symbolic period of forty days (quaranta in Italian) to the treatment of disease which has endured to the current day.   The period of quarantine in its original form, like many public health measures in the past, was designed to offer practical treatment (in the form of medicine, healthy food and clean accommodation) with spiritual comfort and is emblematic of the high profile of religious ideas and people in the healthcare systems of the past.

The programme bridged past and present and included an interview with Catherine Mahony, an aid worker with CAFOD, whose work attempts to dissolve the tensions between medical and religious ideas within the current epidemic.  Dr Stevens Crawshaw said, ‘What emerged from the programme for me was the enduring tension at the heart of public health between concepts of the public good and individual rights and beliefs.  These tensions have to be negotiated, because without the support of the community which it is attempting to cure, public health cannot be effective’.