Disease, Disaster, and Disengagement: Ebola and Political Participation in Sierra Leone

Abstract

How do widespread public health crises affect political behavior? This article examines the impact of the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak on political participation in Sierra Leone. In addition to the effects observed following conflict and natural disasters, I present evidence that hardship brought on by the outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) substantially decreased participation in civic affairs, measured in self-reported political activity using data from an Afrobarometer survey conducted near the end of the outbreak. To account for selection and endogeneity concerns, I undertake falsification and coefficient stability approaches in addition to controlling for levels of political activity in the 2012 national election. The negative effect seems driven in part by a reduction in trust and perceived performance of traditional institutions and not from an increase in economic insecurity, highlighting the role of external efficacy rather than resource-based mechanisms in mediating the relationship between exposure to the disease and participation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that while much of the literature uses the terms “political participation” and “political engagement” interchangeably, I distinguish between the two here. Conceptually, I refer to participation as actual behaviors (e.g., voting, attending community meetings) and use engagement to refer to self-reported interest in political and public affairs.

  2. 2.

    This particular definition corresponds to external efficacy rather than internal efficacy or the degree to which an individual feels that he or she is able to influence social change through participation in existing institutions. For an overview, see Craig and Maggiotto (1982).

  3. 3.

    Although it would not be surprising to observe changes in educational choices of individuals moving forward.

  4. 4.

    However, this does not appear to translate into reduced participation as they also find that exposure to the earthquake was associated with an increase in similar measures of participation to those I employ here. These divergent findings may be due to the fact that the proxy they use to measure exposure is likely correlated with traumatic experiences as well as hardship.

  5. 5.

    This is based on chiefdom-level incidence date pulled from Fang et al. (2016) replication data.

  6. 6.

    Regressions without survey weights and alternative standard errors are also presented in the appendix (Table B.3), though the results are qualitatively similar throughout; directionality and magnitude are consistent to approximately two decimal points in most regressions.

  7. 7.

    It might be concerning that the inclusion of PSU fixed effects does not do more to diminish the coefficient, given that one might assume that levels of Ebola exposure are likely to be highly collinear within PSU. However, even within villages there was significant variation in exposure to the disease.

  8. 8.

    Of course, we have relatively little literature to which we can compare; much of the existing literature examines outcomes several years or even decades after the initial shock. Bauer et al. (2016) find that the effects of conflict exposure on measures of altruism appear to be increasing over time, but their meta-analysis includes only two studies that are within 2 years of the initial conflict.

  9. 9.

    I also employ a coarsened exact matching (CEM) approach (Iacus et al. 2012) using the package provided by Blackwell et al. (2009). These results are found in Table B.11. However measured, hardship remains statistically and negatively related to participation even in a sample matched on the relevant demographic characteristics.

  10. 10.

    F = 2.23 for the measure of direct exposure, and F = 2.18 for the measure of hardship.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Jake Shapiro, Leonard Wantchekon, Saurabh Pant, Manu Singh, Zara Riaz, and Gus Shapiro for helpful comments during a presentation of early results. Additional thanks to Michael Bratton for helpful comments during revision for publication as part of Afrobarometer’s Working Paper Series and three anonymous reviewers.

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Crisman, B. Disease, Disaster, and Disengagement: Ebola and Political Participation in Sierra Leone. St Comp Int Dev 55, 328–353 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-020-09300-x

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Keywords

  • Ebola
  • Political participation
  • Civic engagement
  • External efficacy