On Ebola Hysteria

While headlines might make it appear that the ebola epidemic is imminent on American shores, the real epidemic at hand is ebola hysteria.

Although ebola cases in the United States have been confined to eight patients, the litany of uninformed statements and policy decisions grows by the day. 

Following backlash from parents, a school in New Jersey kept two Rwandan students home. Initially, the school opted to take the students’ temperature three times a day for 21 days, however officials bowed to pressure following missives from hysterical parents. Rwanda is nearly 3000 miles from epicenter of the epidemic - more than the distance between Los Angeles and New York. 

In Mississippi, parents pulled their children out of school after a principal returned from a visit to Zambia.

In Kentucky, The New York Times reported that a local woman refused to leave her house after hearing that a nurse from the Dallas hospital had flown to Cleveland, over 300 miles from her home. 

In communities with many African immigrants, like my home of Washington, DC,West Africans have been subject to ostracism and outright racism. 

Togba Croyee Porte, who lives in Staten Island’s Little Liberia perhaps sums it up best: “We’re fighting Ebola on two fronts: the disease in Africa and stigmatization as Africans here in America, even as we’re losing family members back at home.”

In response to the crisis, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated: "I point the finger of blame at the governments with capacity… I think there’s enough blame to go around.“ He’s right. In the American case, in particular, the pernicious politicization of ebola highlights the political dysfunction of our nation. 

Facing difficult midterm elections, our politicians have whipped up ebola hysteria by calling for irrational and ill-advised flight bans to West Africa while refusing to acknowledge their own complicity in the outbreak. If it were not for federal spending cuts, it is likely that we might have an ebola vaccine today. Research on an ebola vaccine was slashed from at $37 million in 2010 to $18 million in 2014.

Why have we not followed the laudable example of Cuba? The small island nation has a long history of medical diplomacy. To date, the Cuban government has trained over 460 doctors and nurses to help with the epidemic. However, due to the trade embargo, Cuba has not been able to acquire adequate medical equipment and supplies to further support its efforts to aid in this medical emergency. Over the weekend, Fidel Castro rightly called for the United States and Cuba to put their differences aside to stop the spread of the disease. 

By waiting nearly five months to act, the United States and the international community have allowed the disease the spiral out of control in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Ebola only become relevant in American eyes when it came to our shores. It capitalizes on the fears of porous borders and on the antiquated notion of the "dark continent,” which still persists in the popular imagination. For many, Africa is still a land of coups, corruption and disease.

In reality, our fears should be more logically focused on imminent threats like the flu, enterovirus, chikungunya or even dengue fever, a hemorrhagic fever that bears some similarities to ebola and is making inroads in the Florida Keys.

Americans have been lazy on two fronts. We have been slow to respond to the epidemic and slow to call out the prejudice that is slowly eroding the decade of work to change Africa’s image around the world. 

During the US-Africa Summit, coverage of the continent was paltry. Despite the presence of 50+ African leaders in our nation’s capital, talk of the event was few and far between on the Sunday talk show circuit. Yet every news program’s headline and every newspaper’s front page today features ebola. The imbalance and “disaster bias” in our coverage of Africa has never been more clear. 

Akinyi OchiengComment