On Thursday, as the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) testifies before Congress about the potential failings in the recent response to a case of Ebola infection on U.S. soil, much of the country is in panic mode. An increasing number of lawmakers are calling for a travel ban to the affected countries in West Africa, and some school districts are canceling class over fears that students will contract the deadly virus.
Some observers have noticed that the national response to the Ebola outbreak — which is ravaging several impoverished countries in West Africa, but which doesn’t pose much of a threat here at home — has been disproportionate compared to how the U.S. reacted to the recent spread of other infectious diseases.
“With Mad Cow disease (in Great Britain), you didn’t restrict travel; when you had bird flu in China you didn’t restrict travel,” Leo Mulbah, who heads up the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta, told the Detroit Free Press. “So why now?”
In his interview with the newspaper, Mulbah suggested it’s because countries like Liberia don’t have the same political or economic clout as countries in Europe or Asia. That’s certainly true. On top of that, however, there’s another dynamic that’s been gaining increasing attention over the past few weeks: The undercurrent of racial stereotypes and prejudice.
Thanks to Ebola, some xenophobic attitudes have been on full display recently. Last month, a cover of Newsweek used a chimp to illustrate a story about how bush meat imported from Africa could be a “back door for Ebola.” Lawmakers have suggested that Ebola-infected people may stream across the Mexico border. A community college in Texas stopped accepting perfectly healthy students of Nigerian and Liberian descent. Liberian immigrants who live in Texas are getting refused service at restaurants. There are a lot of comparisons being made to AIDS, the last scary disease to come out of Africa that gave rise to similar racial fears and stereotypes.
Plus, there are some very basic racial factors at play. The vast majority of the people who are suffering and dying from Ebola are black. The handful of people who are being flown to the U.S. to receive care at top hospitals, given an experimental Ebola drug, and ultimately recovering from the virus are white. This dynamic was not lost on the family members of the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., a Liberian man named Thomas E. Duncan. Along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, they have criticized the Texas hospital where Duncan was treated, saying he received substandard care because he was a black man and an immigrant.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment — particularly conservative media outlets, who were quick to mock a CNN anchor who suggested that Duncan’s accent and ethnicity may have influenced hospital staff’s immediate response to his illness. But Duncan’s individual case isn’t necessarily the issue. It’s one data point in a much larger historical context of racism, xenophobia, and stoking fears about Africa.
There’s a long history of treating Africa like a dirty and diseased place, as meticulously documented in a Washington Post piece published at the end of August. This history can be traced through colonialism, slavery, and racist imagery portraying Africans as savages or apes. While Americans frequently associate immigrants with diseases — there have been plenty of examples of that dynamic in the debate over the migrant border crisis — research has found that type of xenophobia is even stronger against African immigrants than it is against people from Europe or Asia.
So, it’s perhaps not surprising that the current coverage of Ebola is setting up the type of clear “us versus them” narrative — privileged versus disenfranchised, Western versus African, and white versus black — that often emerges in the moral panic over diseases. Particularly in cable news discussions about the imperative to seal our borders against the impending threat of the virus, the people who have Ebola are being framed as the “others.” And from that perspective, the outbreak only matters in terms of how it impacts Westerners.
“When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that Ebola had crossed into the United States, carried on the body of a black man from Liberia, the threat of infection was suddenly perceived as quite real,” Stassa Edwards wrote on Jezebel this week.
Meanwhile, as the headlines are dominated by the latest updates on the two Americans who are currently infected with Ebola, thousands of African people have died from a disease that their governments are not prepared to combat. Groups like Doctors Without Borders have been begging for more outside assistance for months, but the help hasn’t come fast enough. The United Nations’ newly-created Ebola fund is already running out of money. The slow international response is another example of racist attitudes, according to Dr. Joia Mukherjee, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the chief medical officer at the nonprofit Partners in Health.
“I think it’s easy for the world — the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color — to ignore the suffering of poor, black people,” Mukherjee said in an interview with Public Radio International. “These are not countries that contribute massively to the global economy, so it’s easy to just otherize this problem.”