Fewer than 24 hours after tests for Ebola on a patient at Yale-New Haven Hospital came back negative, students gathered outside the Yale School of Public Health to generate awareness of healthcare discrepancies between Africa and the United States.
The students, all members of the Yale Global Health and AIDS Coalition, held the demonstration to draw attention to cuts in federal global health programs that invest in healthcare in Africa. Protestors also questioned whether the media response to American Ebola cases is proportional to the severity of the epidemic in the U.S.
“There has been so much media coverage about one Ebola case at Yale,” said YGHAC President Emily Briskin ’15. “We want to draw attention to the 9,000 cases in Africa getting seemingly little coverage.”
The five demonstrators — four Yale undergraduates and one public health student — stood outside the School of Public Health at 60 College St. at 9 a.m. on Friday. They held signs featuring critical messages — “Obama: Strengthen Health in Africa Now,” “4 cases in the US, 9000 in West Africa” and “African lives matter just as much as American lives do.”
Planning for the demonstration began on Thursday afternoon shortly after news outlets reported that a patient had been admitted to YNHH with Ebola-like symptoms, Briskin said.
“The topic of increasing funding to global health programs is always on our mind,” Briskin said. “We thought this was a prime opportunity to draw attention to this issue.”
The demonstration aimed to address recent actions in Washington that have undermined the U.S.’s ability to invest in African healthcare, including a $600 million cut from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Briskin said.
These cuts have coincided with the growing need for healthcare infrastructure in Africa during the ongoing Ebola epidemic. The weak healthcare systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone contributed to the escalation of the Ebola outbreak in those countries, said YGHAC member Teresa Logue ’15. YGHAC Co-Founder, lecturer at Yale Law School and Co-Director of the Global Health Justice Partnership Gregg Gonsalves ’11 GRD ’18 agreed, adding that the Ebola epidemic could have been contained if the health systems of the affected countries had been strong enough to identify, isolate and treat cases.
“Africa’s healthcare system appears to operate on a ‘damage control’ rather than a preventative system,” said Adedotun Ogunbajo SPH ’16. “By not having effective systems in place, emergency health situations such as the Ebola outbreak cannot be adequately addressed.”
The demonstration also criticized the media for its lack of coverage of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. American media focuses disproportionately on the few cases of Ebola in the U.S. despite the prevalence of the disease in West Africa, Gonsalves said.
Ogunbajo said the media also fails to focus on success stories, like those in Nigeria, a nation that managed to mobilize its public health resources and contain the disease. He added that although concerns about the cases in Texas are legitimate, the burden of the disease is still predominantly in Africa.
“While media coverage of the Ebola crisis in the United States is warranted and necessary, little attention to countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, where people are dying daily, is inexcusable,” Ogunbajo said.
Response to the demonstration has been largely positive, Briskin said, noting that the group has received emails and messages from students expressing their support for the largely neglected issue.
YGHAC hopes to take more action on this issue in the coming weeks. They will be calling on Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to encourage fellow senators to increase funding for African healthcare systems, Briskin said.
Yale students can also play a role in fighting for improved public health policies, beginning by addressing healthcare inequities at home, Gonsalves said. In an increasingly connected world, healthcare issues do not exist in isolation, he pointed out.
“Crumbling health systems thousands of miles away can have unexpected effects right where we live,” Gonsalves said. “I think we all learned that lesson this week.”
Correction: Oct. 20
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the amount that has been cut from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.