Battling Ebola in a war zone in Congo

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A ROW of health workers in blue gowns and face masks sit at tables outside the tin-roofed bungalow that was home to Kambale Vincent, one of 75 people who have died from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this month. His widow, a hunched, 60-year-old in a black cardigan, pulls her arm out of her sleeve and winces as a needle pierces her skin. She is receiving an experimental Ebola vaccine, fresh from trials in west Africa, that is being offered to anyone who may have touched her late husband.

Getting vaccines to the centre of this outbreak, the scrubby village of Mangina in the North Kivu province of Eastern Congo, is no easy task. The area is in infested with about 40 armed militias, most of which have been hiding in the forests since the end of a war in 2003 that claimed the lives of between 1m and 5m people.

Just a day after the outbreak was declared on August 1st, machete-toting militiamen sprang out of the bush and abducted 16 people in a field around 30 kilometres from Mangina. In broad daylight they dragged ten men, four women and two teenage boys—who were walking back from a day’s farming—into their forest hideout. Fourteen of the villagers’ hacked-up bodies were found in shallow scrubland graves five day later. The two boys were probably taken as recruits.

The attacks have been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group of Islamist ideologues originally from Uganda. In recent years the anti-government rebels have gone from attacks on the Congolese army and UN peacekeeping troops, to indiscriminately abducting citizens. Each time they strike, frightened families rush through the porous border into Uganda nearby—exactly the kind of hurried, untraceable movement that makes it harder to contain the Ebola virus.

“We have a toxic mix of factors,” says Mike Ryan, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is trying to get 9,300 vaccinations to those who need them. “We are dealing with security problems, a weak health system and disease. We have to balance access with security all the time.”

Health workers risk more than exposure to a virus. Médecins Sans Frontières, an international charity running the Ebola treatment centre in Mangina, had four of its staff abducted by the ADF in 2013. Though one escaped after 13 months, the rest have not been seen since.

Other factors may also have contributed to the spread of the disease, including a strike by local nurses who were not paid for three months. The virus may have reached Mangina as early as May 11th when a man with Ebola-like symptoms died in the local clinic. But the first deaths were reported only in late July. Josephine Kahambu, a nurse, alerted the officials in the capital, Kinshasa, after two men with bloodshot eyes, diarrhoea and fevers came to her clinic. Although she was on strike she decided to see to them and recognised signs of the deadly virus.

This particularly deadly strain of the disease, known as “Zaire Ebola”, has killed 78% of those it has touched. It is transmitted through bodily fluids and can be passed on with as little as a sweaty handshake. Thankfully some lessons learned in the west African outbreak, which killed 11,310 people between 2014 and 2016, seem to be helping. Instead of barking at frightened villagers through a megaphone about how they should protect themselves from infection, workers from the WHO talked to the village chief. “The chief is more listened-to than we are,” says Frizzia Safari, a Congolese doctor. “We talk to him and then he talks to the people.”

If nurses can prick enough arms quickly then it may be possible to halt this outbreak before it spreads much further. But they are finding it difficult to outrun the virus because of poor roads and the threat of attack from armed rebels. So new cases keep cropping up each day.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard reaches The End of his struggle

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My Struggle: Book Six. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken.Archipelago; 1,160 pages; $33. Published in Britain as “The End” by Harvill Secker; £25.

THE title of the British edition of the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” seems self-explanatory. But what exactly is it that is coming to an end in “The End”? A novel? A diary? A memoir? An autobiography posing as a novel or a novel posing as an autobiography? Or the biggest act of self-indulgence in modern literature?

“My Struggle” is a phenomenon. In Mr Knausgaard’s native Norway one in ten people owns a copy of one of the volumes, but its popularity is global. “It’s completely blown my mind,” said Zadie Smith, likening her yearning for the next book to the crack-addict’s hunger for another hit. Rachel Cusk—who like Mr Knausgaard is a practitioner of “autofiction”, in which writers take their own lives as subject matter—dubbed it “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times”.

It is also one of the strangest: ridiculously long (3,770 pages overall in Don Bartlett’s and Martin Aitken’s admirable translation), devoid of plot, hopelessly meandering. “My Struggle” just keeps coming at you, much as life does. One moment Mr Knausgaard is meditating on whether it’s possible to find meaning in a world without God; the next he is describing the mundane details of feeding a child or lighting a cigarette (the series would have been considerably shorter if he wasn’t such an avid smoker). The reader is spared nothing. “I hadn’t masturbated, not a single time, until I was nineteen,” he writes. He laments “the ignominy and the constant humiliation of premature ejaculation”.

“The End” is the strangest of the six volumes as well as the most self-indulgent: a book about self-obsession that opines at length about what it is like to write a book about self-obsession. It starts with an impending disaster. Mr Knausgaard’s uncle is so furious about his depiction of his father’s death from alcoholism—“verbal rape”, the uncle calls it—that he threatens to sue him to high heaven. The Norwegian media relish the fight. The harassed author struggles to meet his next deadline, getting up at four every morning while bringing up his three small children and looking after his manic-depressive wife.

Mr Knausgaard repeatedly returns to the question of whether his project—to turn his life into art—is worth it. Is it reasonable to impose such suffering on his family for the sake of his craft? He doesn’t really do it for the fame; though he gets a certain thrill from discovering that he’s “big”, he lives as far away from the literary limelight as he can get. He does it because, like Martin Luther, “I can do no other.” A bizarre inner compulsion drives him to bare his soul to the world in the name of “truth”.

His second great obsession, after himself, is with that other author of a book called “My Struggle”, Adolf Hitler. About half-way through, “The End” shifts abruptly in tone and focus—from a reflection on the life of a writer in rich and stable Scandinavia to a 400-page essay on Hitler’s early years. Mr Knausgaard follows Hitler’s progress from aspiring artist to down-and-out. He undertakes a close reading of “Mein Kampf” to see how the trainee dictator’s mind works, and reconstructs the intellectual world of pre-war Europe—with its exuberant high culture on the one hand, and its obsession with race and biology on the other. He insists on treating Hitler as “one of us”, an ordinary human being who was abused by his father and disappointed in his life, rather than as a monster.

My only friend, The End

Why has such a quixotic and demanding work achieved such success? The title no doubt played an important part. So did Mr Knausgaard’s craggy good looks; had he been pimply and puny, he might have found a much smaller audience for his thoughts on masturbation and Hitler. But there are also more substantial reasons.

The most obvious is Mr Knausgaard’s unflinching honesty. In an age of spin he dwells on the imperfections of human life—his father’s drinking, his wife’s neediness, his children’s tantrums. In an age of political correctness, he confesses that he feels emasculated by child care. Such transgressive blurring of the borders between the public and private, sayable and unsayable, can be both life-affirming and riveting. Readers see that they are not alone in at once loving their families and resenting them for impinging on their time.

Just as important, though Mr Knausgaard wrote them fast, his books take their time. “My Struggle” is the equivalent of slow food in a drive-thru age. The internet serves up instant gratification: buzzy stories that command attention for a few minutes or even a few seconds. The medium renders everything equally accessible and equally disposable. Mr Knausgaard provides the internet in reverse: a slow-moving contemplation of everything from the trivial to the profound.

The trickier question is whether the series actually deserves its success. Is it a masterpiece, as its many fans maintain? Or is Mr Knausgaard a literary circus freak? Ostensibly he ignores most of the rules of great literature. His sentences are deliberately under-wrought; he writes in the same flat tone about lighting a cigarette and the essence of beauty. The structure can feel slapdash. A discussion of Anders Breivik’s slaughter of 77 Norwegians in 2011 is disappointingly brief; rather than using the episode to drive home his point that the foundations of civilisation are dangerously fragile, Mr Knausgaard moves on.

But at his best he is wonderful. The study of his relationship with his dysfunctional father—which forms the centrepiece of “A Death in the Family”, the first volume, and ripples through the other five—is unforgettable. Mr Knausgaard captures the torture of a child’s interactions with a difficult and self-obsessed parent: the longing for approval from someone who is incapable of giving it, at least with any consistency; the highs and lows as this object of awe praises him one moment and scorns him the next; and the emotional turmoil as a complicated man slowly becomes deranged, moving in with his mother (the author’s grandmother), persuading her to join him in his drinking binges, and finally drinking himself to death, surrounded by filth, from discarded bottles to unwashed clothes and human excrement.

And, flat though it may be, Mr Knausgaard’s style can be compelling. “It wasn’t hard to write well,” he reflects in one passage, “but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement.” Paradoxically, by not bothering with conventional fine writing, Mr Knausgaard succeeds in producing prose that is “alive”, partly because of his eye for detail and partly because of the quality of his intellect. His lengthy section on Hitler, for example, contains one of the best discussions anywhere of the Führer’s skill as a public speaker:

his enormous ability to establish community, in which the entire register of his inner being, his reservoir of pent-up emotions and suppressed desire, could find an outlet and pervade his words with such intensity and conviction that people wanted to be there, in the hatred on the one side, the hope and utopia on the other, the gleaming, almost divine future that was theirs for the taking if only they would follow him and obey his words.

This reviewer finished “The End” with mixed emotions: gratitude that Mr Knausgaard had broken all the rules to admit readers into his life, but also relief that the whole thing was over, and a conviction that he and his acolytes should now find new experiments to pursue. In his “Confessions”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau promised to tell his story with such brutal honesty that his project, “which has no precedent”, would also, once complete, “have no imitator”. Let us hope that this is also the case with “My Struggle”—and that “The End” really is the end.

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Loneliness is pervasive and rising, particularly among the young

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DOCTORS and policymakers in the rich world are increasingly worried about loneliness. Researchers define loneliness as perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like. To find out how many people feel this way, The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), an American non-profit group focused on health, surveyed nationally representative samples of people in three rich countries. The study found that over 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated.

One villain in the contemporary debate is technology. Smartphones and social media are blamed for a rise in loneliness in young people. This is plausible. Data from the OECD club of mostly rich countries suggest that in nearly every member country the share of 15-year-olds saying that they feel lonely at school rose between 2003 and 2015.

The smartphone makes an easy scapegoat. A sharp drop in how often American teenagers go out without their parents began in 2009, around when mobile phones became ubiquitous. Rather than meet up as often in person, so the story goes, young people are connecting online.

But this need not make them lonelier. Snapchat and Instagram may help them feel more connected with friends. Of those who said they felt lonely in the KFF/Economist survey, roughly as many found social media helpful as thought it made them feel worse. Yet some psychologists say that scrolling through others’ carefully curated photos can make people feel they are missing out, and lonely.

It is not clear whether it is heavy social-media use leading to loneliness, or vice versa. The most rigorous recent study of British adolescents’ social-media use, published by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein in 2017, found no link between “moderate” use and measures of well-being. They found evidence to support their “digital Goldilocks hypothesis”: neither too little nor too much screen time is probably best.

Read more in the International section

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Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

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IN EUROPE, a belief in witchcraft is widely associated with medieval superstition. But this is not quite accurate. Before the 15th century popes denied the existence of witchcraft and forbade the prosecution of anyone accused of practising it. It was only after 1500 that churches reversed their position. Over the following three centuries 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft, half of whom were executed, mostly by hanging or burning. But in the 18th century the practice of putting people on trial for witchcraft died out. The Economist’s first issue in 1843 (published 175 years ago this month) hoped that support for tariffs would go the way of belief in witches: to extinction.

In recent decades economists have tussled over why this happened. In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

The persecution of vulnerable folk on trumped-up allegations of witchcraft may sound like a horror story from a history book, but the practice is on the rise in modern-day Africa. The prime victims are now children, with orphans, the disabled and albinos particularly at risk. In 2010 Unicef, a charity, estimated that 20,000 children accused of witchcraft lived on the streets of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Areas of intense religious competition between Christians and Muslims are hot spots. In Nigeria, for instance, Pentecostal Christian preachers fight for converts by offering protection from child witches. Development experts hope that higher incomes and stronger states will end these witch hunts. But the evidence from Europe is that once religious leaders start to use witch trials as a selling point, stopping them is hard. Europe’s witch trials only ceased a century after the end of its religious wars.

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