Remembering the Future: Epidemic Anticipation in Sierra Leone

We have been here before: the hand-washing stations, the checkpoints, the messages spoken through megaphones. On the 30th March, Sierra Leone registered its first official COVID-19 case, four years after the end of the Ebola epidemic. In Kambia, on the country’s North Western border with Guinea, there are no cases to date. People wait for the daily briefings, scroll down WhatsApp anxiously to see which Districts are highlighted as having registered new cases. News arrives from Freetown as cases pass the three digits mark, from Lunsar, where young men took to the streets allegedly in response to accusations that the Paramount Chief had allowed the construction of a 5G pole. In the markets and at the lorry park, where in normal times cars arrive from Guinea, people speculate: when will it arrive here?

Ethnography in the time of COVID-19

Our research has focused on Kambia since June 2015, when at the end of the Ebola epidemic we started our collaborative ethnographic work on the experiences and aftermath of that outbreak. We studied community engagements with the vaccine trials in the district, and interrogated how Ebola had shaped (mis)trust in biomedicine and reconfigured social and political relations. Our reflections were rooted in long- and short- histories, considering how colonial encounters, war and then Ebola shaped local lifeworlds. We sought to answer questions about preparedness drawing on the past and the present. We were, though, unable to predict the future. As COVID-19 emerged in China, we pondered if it would arrive to Sierra Leone, but it seemed a distant threat. As the epidemic transformed into a pandemic in March and those of us in Europe started experiencing lockdowns, we shared rumours, stories and anxieties between London and Kambia. We discussed how to change our research, and as a range of public health measures were introduced in Sierra Leone, we re-imagined safe participant observation. Daily ethnographic notes turned into ‘lockdown diaries’, collecting stories and experiences from our communities. Through our observations we have begun to think of what it means to “think the future ethnographically”1 and how to make sense of the anticipations and imaginations of the future that are emerging from our research.

As we speak on the phone, across continents, each experiencing our own version of the pandemic, we share concerns about Kambia. “You know…with the border”, we tell each other, reflecting on current risks. As we make sense of this new crisis together, models and daily surveillance reports encourage us to imagine particular futures, to experience the present through the lens of anticipation, an uncertainty laced with foreboding. But as we wait for COVID-19, we only know how to make sense of this present through our experience of the past. Our vocabularies are changing—“how are you doing social distancing?”—and we share pictures of each other with colourful face-masks. Yet the new intertwines with the old: announcements of new measures like the intermittent lockdowns that Sierra Leone government has put in place link us back to past dislocations, “cuttings” from another time. The shadows of Ebola colour daily narratives and experience of this new reality for Kambians and give shape to an uncertain yet proximate future.

Imagining COVID-19 from the border

Kambia’s position on the border elicits particular anxieties in the national imagination. Many of those living near the border, have social and economic ties in neighbouring Guinea. People normally move to attend the market (luma) in the Guinean town of Pamlap, their farms don’t respect formal border demarcations, and neither do family connections. Certainly during Ebola the border posed a problem—the myriad of informal crossings made it difficult to enforce closures, to trace contacts and to contain the disease. Stories of people escaping quarantine, or “smuggling” people to Guinea where restrictions were perceived to be looser abounded. Those communities are often perceived to be resistant and potentially disloyal. Such anxieties are resuscitated in anticipation of coronavirus: Guinea has registered over 3000 cases and the official border closed. Like during the time of Ebola, families find themselves divided during the month of Ramadan, unable to pray and break their fast together. Local task forces have been reactivated, with young volunteers asked to police movement and report the appearance of any “stranger” in their community, as people inevitable continue to cross through the forest and by sea at night.

Rokupr Wharf, Kambia District

Our research on community experiences of epidemics, preparedness and biomedical encounters has highlighted the role of rumour as a form of storytelling that elaborates profound anxieties and concern, rooted in political, social and economic realities.2 During Ebola, people spoke of the virus as a form of population control, invoking images of Western nations intent on decimating African populations with vivid echoes of an extractive and violent colonial past. Strong critiques of those who were “eating Ebola money” expressed deep concerns with the unequal political economy of crisis, where some appear to benefit at the expense of others’ suffering. 

The political economy of Covid-19 feels more confusing. Whilst the previous epidemic seemed to be accompanied by significant funding and employment opportunities, “corona” does not seem to be bringing any money for now. The international community might help, but some are concerned about their ability to do so now that those same countries are the first to be affected. Those who volunteer for the response are occasionally mocked: whatever visibility they might think they are garnering, they won’t be “eating” any corona money.

Yet the imageries of the powerful “eating” off the back of the more vulnerable continue to resonate, from one crisis to the next. The veracity of coronavirus is challenged, just like Ebola was, and imagined to be a ploy for politicians to make money or to expand government power. At the same time, rumours posit various political figures as being secretly ill, as unlike Ebola, the first to get sick have been the wealthy, those more likely to travel abroad. Others say that if this “white man disease” will take hold in a place like Kambia it will be through willing infection, for example through vaccines, as global controversies over clinical trials in Africa are re-imagined in town. Health centres have been eerily empty, as people’s concerns that they may be catch the disease find grounding in experiences of nosocomial infections in the past epidemic.

Abass Kamara reviewing surveillance data in April 2020

The shadows of Ebola have also mean that a looming health crisis feels familiar as similar mechanisms are reactivated. The District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC) comprising key pillars like social mobilisation and surveillance were called into action. Some look to the Ebola Vaccine trials that are still taking place in the district with confidence, suggesting that this kind of research capacity might make Kambia better prepared than other places. Daily briefings are busy, and some of those who take part express an uncomfortable sense of anticipation, a tension between the possibility of new opportunities that are associated with crisis and anxiety around how an outbreak in the district might affect their community.

Former Ebola response offices, repurposed for COVID-19

Community Health Workers have been trained to be on “standby” to trace contacts should the need arise, and community leaders are preparing to put by-laws in place. The ‘people’s science’3 learned during Ebola might make some of these communities more prepared than their Western counterparts. Community Care Centres that were trialled during Ebola may become useful again. Yet people also know this is a different epidemic. “Corona” is not just a different disease that requires new interventions, and raises new challenges around how to adapt public health measures to Sierra Leone, but also because there may be fewer resources. Kambians worry they will be left to their own devices, and they wait for COVID-19 with apprehension – with one foot in the future, imagining what might come, and one in the past in the knowledge of what has come before.

Near-Future Making

As Engelmann notes “real time surveillance brings the global community face to face with the developing epidemic, suggesting a sense of participation as well as control”.4 We experience an ‘epidemic of signification’, with thousands of attempts to ‘give meaning to a crisis while we are still in the thick of it’. Future-making in epidemics tends to be ascribed solely to mathematical models, as tools of “anticipatory governance, offering projections that ‘close down unknowns into a governable present’.5 Yet, whilst these models rest on particular imaginations of social realities they also produce them.6 As we are experiencing across the world at the moment, these models become a means of “knowing the virus” and as a consequence, of knowing and ordering the future to enact the present.

In contrast to this, the anthropological project of “thinking the future ethnographically”7 is less ordered but no less important. Our ethnographic encounters do not offer immediate recommendations or confident pictures of what is to come, but they position storytelling at the centre of our collective experience of crisis and as a way to imagine, and ultimately make, the future together.

Cognisant of the modelled projections of an impending epidemic, in Kambia, and in our discussions, we make sense of the near future through our navigations of the present and memories of the past. Anticipating this near-future, our interlocutors are “preparing the groundwork for that future to occur” and position themselves as “future makers”.8 The public health officials trying to acquire visibility in a possible epidemic response whilst worrying about their safety, the market traders who hike prices to plan for lockdowns, the contact tracers preparing to deploy, the anthropologists listening to their stories, are all part of the rich tapestry that will be “corona times”. Rumours, the concerns about who will “eat” and who won’t, act as a running commentary, a critique of the status quo and an offering of alternate interpretations. This anticipation is our “collective way of addressing the anxiety and uncertainty, and of forestalling or altering the future”.9

We do not propose ourselves as predictors of the future. Rather, we look ahead to re-make our understanding of the past, to find our grounding in the present, and to remind each other of the difference between a future that is simulated and one that is actively made through collective imagination. We also do not propose to “close down” uncertainty but rather to understand how this is experienced and to leave open alternatives and tentative “becomings”. Above all, in a time of social distancing, we continue to understand ourselves and each other through social connection, as our encounters and story telling, albeit form afar, give texture to our collective efforts to make sense of the crisis before us.

Post-Script: On the 24th May Kambia registered its first COVID-19 case.

  1. Pels, P. et al. Modern times: Seven steps toward an anthropology of the future. Curr. Anthropol. 56, 0 (2015). []
  2. Enria, L. et al. Power, fairness and trust: understanding and engaging with vaccine trial participants and communities in the setting up the EBOVAC-Salone vaccine trial in Sierra Leone. BMC Public Health 16, 1140 (2016). []
  3. Richards, P. Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End An Epidemic. (Zed Books, 2016). []
  4. Engelmann, L. # COVID19: The Spectacle of Real-Time Surveillance. Somat. March 26, (2020). []
  5. Rhodes, T., Lancaster, K. & Rosengarten, M. A model society: maths, models and expertise in viral outbreaks. (2020). []
  6. Richardson, E. T. Pandemicity, COVID-19 and the limits of public health ‘science’. BMJ Glob. Heal. 5, e002571 (2020). []
  7. Pels, P. et al. Modern times: Seven steps toward an anthropology of the future. Curr. Anthropol. 56, 0 (2015). []
  8. Bryant, R. & Knight, D. M. The anthropology of the future. (Cambridge University Press, 2019). []
  9. Bryant, R. & Knight, D. M. The anthropology of the future. (Cambridge University Press, 2019). []

Luisa Enria, Mahmood H. Bangura, Abass S. Kamara, Shelley Lees

Luisa Enria is Assistant Professor at the University of Bath/ London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Mahmood Bangura is a Graduate Researcher at EBOVAC Salone, Abass Kamara is a Research Assistant for the Anthropology of Vaccine Deployment project; Shelley Lees is Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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