Professor proposes use of law to tackle infectious diseases


Matiangai Sirleaf, assistant professor of law at Pitt, discusses the effect that the Ebola virus has on West African countries as part of Pitt’s Critical Research on Africa Lecture Series. (Photo by Divyanka Bhatia | Staff Photographer)

Matiangai Sirleaf has represented plaintiffs in numerous international human rights cases litigated in federal courts. Now, as an assistant professor of law at Pitt, she plans to use her legal expertise to eradicate infectious diseases.

Sirleaf presented her research on disease in Africa, titled “Ebola Does Not Fall from the Sky: Global Structural Violence and International Responses,” to a crowd of about 30 people in Posvar Hall Thursday. She spoke about how international crises, such as epidemics, are perpetuated by structural violence — systemic, often subtle, ways institutions or social structures harm people.

Sirleaf said her goal is to have more people gain a better understanding of what structural violence is and what warrants international and interventional attention. She is using the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak — an epidemic that mainly affected the three African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — as a case study to examine this.

Speaking as part of Pitt’s Critical Research on Africa Lecture Series, Sirleaf began by briefly discussing how big of an impact infectious diseases can have on certain communities. She said infectious diseases cause roughly 15 percent of all deaths around the world, but people usually see these as resulting from physical issues rather than institutional ones.

“There is a continuum of violence which comes from what we see as physical violence to a spectrum of violence that is structural and institutional,” Sirleaf said. “What we tend to do is focus on the narrowing end of that continuum.”

Sirleaf described health care systems in West Africa as contributing to structural violence because of how weak they are in response to infectious diseases.  Their instability is why health organizations like World Vision and Doctors Without Borders had to come in and assist countries stricken with Ebola. When these health organizations left West African countries to help other countries fight infectious diseases, it became harder again for West Africa to provide effective health care to treat Ebola.

“[The health organizations leaving] accelerated the harm that Ebola caused once it came, decreasing the likelihood of survival of the health systems to this particular disease,” Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf talked about how a cumulative build up of structural violence led to exploitation and underdevelopment throughout the three countries that were affected most by Ebola in Africa. Sirleaf cited how imperialist exploitation in the past — particularly the slave trade — weakened these countries. She also said northern African countries took western African resources to improve their own economies.

Sirleaf argued that not enough attention is given to the inequalities that enable the spread of infectious diseases around the world, which, she said, is a form a structural violence. Sirleaf wants to incorporate the concept of structural violence into law in order to ensure that epidemics such as the one that happened in West Africa can be prevented from overtaking and destroying communities.

Caitlin Budd, a sophomore majoring in natural sciences, said she did not know about the forces causing delayed responses to epidemics, such as Ebola, prior to coming to the lecture.

“The idea that Ebola affecting African countries is a violent act and the fact that we need to do more as a country is something I think is very critical,” Budd said.

Brittaney Richards, a first-year majoring in biology, appreciated Sirleaf’s presentation because it taught her how much infectious diseases in general can affect large populations.

“Coming from a biology major perspective, I think I grew up with a very closed definition of how diseases impacts people, and so I learned a lot from this presentation,” Richards said.

Sirleaf is aiming to expand those limited definitions and stressed the importance of developing a better plan to respond to these types of emergencies.

“I think that it is incumbent upon us to reduce the responsibility and accountability gaps in international law because we are responsible for our individual and collective actions,” Sirleaf said.