Heartbreaking stories from the Ebola outbreak are familiar by now, although that doesn’t make them any easier to hear, and a “Frontline” installment being broadcast on PBS on Tuesday (10 p.m., UNC-TV) has its share. But it also has something less familiar: Officials acknowledging that they could have done a better job of responding to the crisis.
The program traces the outbreak to its origin, thought to be a tree full of bats in Guinea. And then it charts the early weeks, before the world took much notice, including the death of a revered traditional healer known as Mendinor along the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone. The customary funeral preparation, with its washing of the body, and the well-attended ceremony were the kinds of things that turned a small-scale problem into an out-of-control one.
“The healer’s funeral was a catastrophe,” the narration says. “Scientists were later to call it a superspreader event and ultimately linked hundreds of deaths back to Mendinor’s burial.”
Customs and suspicions in the villages of Africa have taken a lot of blame, but the program also points fingers elsewhere as it explores why this outbreak became so severe even though other appearances of Ebola had been contained. The World Health Organization, it suggests, initially did not respond aggressively or with the right people. A company called Metabiota that was retained by Sierra Leone to assist with the response also comes across as overmatched.
The program says that the failure to follow chains of transmission early in the crisis cost lives. And at least one official candidly agrees.
“Contract tracing, I would say, is where we got it wrong,” says Dr. Amara Jambai, director of disease and prevention control for Sierra Leone’s health ministry. “We wasted like a month.”
More analysis of the Ebola outbreak lies ahead, of course, and much of it will no doubt come in the form of dry reports that certainly won’t be television-friendly. The “Frontline” examination does a nice job of at least beginning to ask the questions that need to be asked while keeping the human drama front and center.