In the midst of Ebola panic in the Western world, some Americans are worried about schoolchildren coming into contact with people who have been in African countries thousands of miles away from the heart of the outbreak.
For instance, at a school in New Burlington, New Jersey, two Rwandan students are staying at home due to other parents’ fear that they will infect other children with Ebola. Rwanda is as close to the Ebola outbreak as New York City is to Seattle.
In Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a school principal’s recent visit to Zambia has led to a lot of parents choosing to keep their kids at home. But Zambia is in Southern Africa, over 3,000 miles away from the Ebola outbreak — the same distance between New Hampshire and Los Angeles.
A school bus driver in Poplarville, Mississippi who recently visited Ghana is being prevented from returning to work. Meanwhile, in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, some parents kept their kids home when their school hosted two visitors from Uganda. And this phenomenon is not limited to the United States. A school in Worcestershire, England is under pressure to cancel an upcoming trip to Tanzania.
These incidents, which all took place at schools, illustrate a very poor understanding of African geography:
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Africa is the world’s second largest continent. But it’s not unusual for Americans to classify it as a single entity, ignoring the many cultural, economic and geographic differences between its 54 countries. If three countries in Africa are going through an Ebola epidemic, the other 51 must be too, right?
These assumptions are not that different in tone from some of the other examples of how Ebola is motivating xenophobic sentiments in the U.S. For example, some people argue that closing off West Africa altogether is the right way to respond to the outbreak. Liberian immigrants in the U.S. are being refused service at restaurants and dropped from charity programs. Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros recently suggested that the people coming into the United States from Africa will seek medical care from witch doctors and practice Santeria.
This stems from a lack of understanding of Ebola, but it also points to some stereotypes about the African continent as a whole. Americans have a long history of dismissing Africa as a disease-ridden and primitive place.
Joaquim is an intern at ThinkProgress.