Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, Week 31: Adia Benton on Public Health, Ebola and Black Lives on Both Sides of the Atlantic

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed.  In this post, Adia Benton discusses public health, Ebola, humanitarian aid, care, militarism, and evaluations of Black Lives on both sides of the Atlantic.

Benton Cartoon 1

I teach courses in African studies and global health that focus on political economy, history and power. No matter the course content, I find that I have to undergo and perform several kinds of (dis)orientations with students: together, we destabilize dominant frames for talking, writing and learning about the African continent (for example, how does ‘race’ matter there); we identify what is “critical” about “critical approaches” to public health and biomedicine; and we interrogate what it means to study and ultimately work in the fields of public health and medicine, as this professional terrain shifts on a tension that pits rhetorics and practices of safety and care against those of security and discipline.

This year, in my Contemporary African Worlds course, I plan to use the West African Ebola outbreak as case study to explore these shifts, drawing visual and textual analyses together – and linking this case to debates and events occurring closer to campus. (In this case here, the Black Lives Matter movements).

Benton Soldier

Credit: Jonathan Paye-Layleh/Associated Press

Monrovia, Liberia: Riot police and soldiers acting on their president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum Wednesday, trying to contain the Ebola outbreak that has killed 1,350 people and counting across West Africa.

In early August 2014, like many others I was observing what, upon first glance, appeared to be unrelated responses to emergent crises unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic. The first: the international effort to curb the spread of Ebola infection in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And the second: a growing social movement against anti-black police violence. What united them, in my mind, were the visible and palpable presence of policing and state violence against marginalized groups that were protesting disregard for their lives. Global racial hierarchies also linked these movements.  That the Liberian military had – at least in theory — been professionalized by the US government added a layer of complexity to how we think about security paradigms, racialization and policing outside of the Americas. That post-war state-building has often emphasized “security” norms over norms of care lies at the root of humanitarian projects and shapes the landscapes of humanitarian and developmentalist regimes of care. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, security and humanitarian paradigms are rarely uncoupled, and the ‘security’ of expatriates – often (but not always) Western and white — who come to help often take precedent.

Benton Police Line

Credit: Jonathan Paye-Layleh/Associated Press

Monrovia, Liberia: Riot police and soldiers acting on their president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum Wednesday, trying to contain the Ebola outbreak that has killed 1,350 people and counting across West Africa.

In January 2015, Thurka Sangarmoorthy and I wrote the following on Savage Minds, as we also questioned official anthropological calculations regarding which black lives matter for securing the discipline’s relevance:

Almost five months into the epidemic, on August 8, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “public health emergency of international concern.” On August 9, 2014, unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful protests and civil disorder ensued in the following weeks, prompting the governor to declare a “state of emergency” and call on local police and the National Guard to control protests and maintain curfews. The militarization of local police forces became an important topic as a grand jury, which was convened to hear evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, reached a decision not to indict Officer Wilson.

Military and police responses — both international and national — played a crucial role in responses to the Ebola epidemic. On August 20th, the Liberian military quarantined residents of West Point in the capital city of Monrovia without advance warning, essentially cutting them off from food and supplies and causing thousands of residents to clash with troops and riot police. Images surfaced of troops firing live rounds and tear gas and viciously beating back residents who challenged the lockdown. Military-enforced quarantines around entire districts of Sierra Leone and the shift of power from the ministry of health to the ministry of defense were key features of its Ebola response.

Since we wrote that piece, much has happened: the Ebola epidemic in West Africa officially ended, though the after-effects of the epidemic – on the aid landscape, on the three countries’ health systems, and on individual bodies – raise questions about the social, political and economic endpoints for the crisis. Anti-black state-sponsored violence persists, as do the movements opposing it.

Benton Crawford

Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Zuma Press

Edward Crawford, who was recently found dead, returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 13, 2014. 

Those of us who see this kind of violence persisting in how public health constitutes itself in West Africa are right to be wary about the resurgence of global health security paradigms, which may “put physicians and public health personnel in the position of border guards… [undermining the kind of] solidarity and mutual support” required to bring health care and functional public health systems to millions of people.

Benton Cartoon 2

Further reading

Benton, Adia. 2017. Whose security? Ebola, military and the securitization of public health, In ​The Politics of Fear: MSF and the West African Ebola Epidemic​. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Edited by Michiel Hofman and Sokhieng Au.

Benton, Adia . “The Epidemic Will be Militarized: Watching Outbreak as the West African Ebola Epidemic Unfolds.” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology website, October 7, 2014.

Farmer, Paul. 2001. “Russia’s Tuberculosis Catastrophe.” Project Syndicate.

Pierre, Jemima. (2013), Race in Africa Today: A Commentary. Cultural Anthropology, 28: 547–551. doi:10.1111/cuan.12023

Smirl, Lisa. Spaces of aid: how cars, compounds and hotels shape humanitarianism. Zed Books Ltd., 2015.


Adia Benton is a cultural anthropologist with interests in global health, biomedicine, development and humanitarianism and professional sports. She is interested in patterns of inequality in the distribution of and the politics of care in settings “socialized” for scarcity. This means understanding the political, economic and historical factors shaping how care is provided in complex humanitarian emergencies and in longer-term development projects – like those for health. These concerns arise from my previous career in the fields of public health and post-conflict development in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. She writes frequently about these topics on her blog,, and on twitter (as ethnography911). There, she connects these issues with broader conversations about political economy, race and gender.

Her first book, HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015), explores the treatment of AIDS as an exceptional disease and the recognition and care that this takes away from other diseases and public health challenges in poor countries. Her second book project, tentatively titled Cutting Cures, focuses on the global movement to improve access to quality surgical care in poor countries, using it as a case study for describing and understanding ideological formations in global public health. She is also completing a short book about “remote anthropology” during acute crises like the 2013-15 West African Ebola outbreak. Other recent publications have focused on visual analyses of humanitarian images, race and humanitarian professionals, security and military paradigms during epidemics, and temporality in an era of anti-retroviral therapies for HIV/AIDS.



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