Balancing expectations: social responses to humanitarian intervention in the time of Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone

In 2014 the Ebola virus entered Sierra Leone, soon to become the epicentre of a global health crisis. A state of emergency was declared, propped up by a large-scale and far-reaching humanitarian intervention; characterised by stringent bureaucratic and biomedical protocols, restrictions on social and economic life, and novel monetary flows. The paper – centring on residents of an urban neighbourhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, as well as young men recruited in the formal Ebola response – examines the interaction between the protocols and authoritative structures of the state of emergency and humanitarian intervention with established social routines and responses to ‘crisis’ in Freetown, through which residents were presented with contradictory, yet neither unfamiliar, sets of social expectations. While some of these tensions centred around practices that risked transmission of the Ebola virus – such as care and burial practices, which have received the most scholarly and humanitarian attention – the paper describes how a wider set of tensions and divergent visions pertaining to social, economic, and political life complexly mapped onto these fault lines, often in ways that challenge analysis of the crisis that pits ‘local’ culture squarely against ‘foreign’ humanitarian culture.  The paper is informed by 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Freetown, immediately before and during the outbreak. Read More