Health

Award-Winning Actor Wants To Reframe The Way Americans Think About Ebola

CREDIT: Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Since the first report of Ebola in West Africa surfaced earlier this year, much of the media narrative has centered on the subsequent deaths, riots, and breakdown of weakened health care systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — three African countries primarily affected by the virus.

That fear has increased in recent weeks with the first diagnosis — and death shortly after — of an Ebola-stricken man on American soil. Though many people say the situation appears dim, not all is lost, says American award-winning actor and human rights advocate Jeffrey Wright.

Wright recently launched the #CrushEbolaNow campaign, an effort to shift the focus on the Ebola outbreak to the stories of the lives saved and push back against the xenophobia exhibited toward Africans, who have been most affected by the virus.

“We could do well focusing on the strengths of the affected regions and not entirely on the weaknesses despite the enormity of the challenges,” Wright told ThinkProgress.

On Wednesday, CNN International premiered a short video produced by Wright that featured a bevy of national and international figures including Idris Elba, Alicia Keys, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, and Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of global health organization Partners in Health.

In the video, the montage of stars remind viewers that though Ebola remains a threat, people have lived to talked about it. Wright — founder and chairman of Sierra Leone-based precious metals and mineral exploration company Taia Lion Resources and its rural development arm Taia Peace Foundation — said the idea for the campaign came together during the Clinton Global Foundation’s annual meeting in New York last month.

During an interview with ThinkProgress, Wright also recounted personal experiences that inspired the #CrushEbolaNow campaign. In May, after reports of an Ebola infection surfaced in the community of Penguia, where his nonprofit is located, Wright coordinated efforts with the town chief, the World Health Organization, and other actors to supply chlorine, 100 washing stations, and medical supplies to the Sierra Leoneans living in that community. The Golden Globe award winner said that no one in Penguia has died since.

“What’s most critical is that the people on the ground spearheaded the effort to stave off the disease,” Wright told ThinkProgress. “We were able to respond very quickly because we had open lines of communication. That’s what needs to happen. They need to understand who to speak to, who speaks to them, and how to respond to needs quickly.”

As of Oct. 3, more than 7,000 people have been infected by the Ebola virus, more than 4,000 who have succumbed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly 200 American and European healthcare workers count among the casualties.

In recent weeks, medical professionals have said that the disease has little potential of affecting areas in Africa beyond Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, in part because of the manpower and medical resources the countries have received from world aid organizations, the United States, and some European countries.

Some Americans remain fearful, however, about the advent of a pandemic. Nearly a month before Thomas Eric Duncan touched down on American soil, a Harvard School of Public Health poll found that 40 percent of Americans feared an Ebola outbreak on the continent. Those fears may stem from the belief that Ebola’s an airborne disease that could spread with just a cough. While CDC Director Dr. Tom Friedan has reminded journalists and concerned parties that Ebola can only be spread through the fluids and blood of the infected — not in air or on surfaces — members of the mainstream media and political figures have wasted little time inciting fear among the American people.

And the conversation about Ebola has been framed in a manner that portrays Africans as the “others.” In news stories about violent squabbles between Africans and medical personnel, little has been mentioned about the turbulent colonialist history from which that deep mistrust originates. Accounts by African travelers arriving back to the U.S. and parts of Europe mention instances when medical staff refused to attend to them during doctor’s appointments, out of fear of contracting Ebola, regardless of whether they showed symptoms.

While the United States hasn’t imposed travel restrictions to West Africa, GOP leaders — including Texas Gov. Rick Perry at one point — have criticized the Obama administration for taking what it considers reasonable precautions. But some people, Wright included, have expressed their displeasure at the growing Anti-African sentiment that they say ultimately victimizes people for a force over which they had little control.

“I found the news narratives disturbing,” Wright told ThinkProgress. “It didn’t take into account the absence of health infrastructure in these countries. These reports say that the outbreak is a function of the virus when it’s not. The outbreak is a function of economic underdevelopment. I wanted to reframe that narrative and speak closer to the reality that exists there.”

That’s why Wright said he hopes to collect stories of survival in Sierra Leone that further support the message of #CrushEbolaNow. Wright also revealed plans to raise funds for Ebola research through the Ebola Survival Fund, which will support community efforts to quell Ebola throughout West Africa. Funds raised, according to Wright, will be doled out through a host of organizations including Shine On Sierra Leone and Well Body Alliance.

“We want to channel our relationships and capacity directly and efficiently to people’s specific needs,” Wright told ThinkProgress. ”We want to play a long term role so that ten years from now, we don’t have to circle back for a similar crisis. The ultimate goal is to not only harness and contain this outbreak but build up local capacity and systems that strengthen the well-being of these communities in the long term.”