Of the nearly 10,000 people who have been infected by the Ebola virus, fewer than 20 have been outside of the African continent.
But you wouldn’t know it from much of the alarm that’s being raised in some European news outlets and by the outrage of some American politicians who can’t understand why President Obama hasn’t banned flights from the affected West African countries. The Obama’s administration’s announcement last Tuesday requiring anyone flying in from Ebola affected countries to come through one of five designated screening airports has not quieted critics who accuse him of not doing more to “protect Americans.”
The New York Times reports that Africans living in Russia and in many parts of Western Europe have been the objects of suspicion and heightened scrutiny. In Texas, Navarro College, a community college with several campuses, rejected international students from countries with “confirmed Ebola cases,” including Nigeria, which has been declared Ebola free (The college later claimed that the rejection letters had gone out in error and apologized for “any misinformation that may have been shared with students.”)
To be sure, the paranoia is not unique to Europe and in North America. Jamaica has banned flights from African countries battling the pandemic. Mauritius took a similar step a few weeks ago, barring entry for 60 days to anyone who had been in one of the affected countries. Before the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola free, the country’s president lamented the fact that some hospitals were refusing to admit patients suspected of having the virus.
It’s easy to understand the paranoia about this horrific disease. Despite claims from medical experts, we still know little about the origins of the virus or what triggers outbreaks. And medical experts are still struggling to understand how else the disease is spread besides contact with bodily fluids of infected individuals.
But the larger question is, how much of the paranoia in North America and Europe is a result of fear and how much is driven by thinly veiled xenophobia and racism?
In August, Newsweek put a chimpanzee on its cover to illustrate an article, derided by academics, activists and other critics as poorly reported and deeply flawed, about the possible origins of the Ebola virus and about how the consumption of bush meat could be serve as a back door or entry point for the virus into the United States. In the past, some scientists have theorized that people contracted the disease by eating the flesh of monkeys or chimpanzees. More recently, however, scientists have focused their attention on fruit bats, considered a delicacy in some parts of West Africa – which made the magazine’s choice of a primate for its cover all the more curious.
“Far from presenting a legitimate public health concern, the authors of the piece and the editorial decision to use chimpanzee imagery on the cover have placed Newsweek squarely in the center of a long and ugly tradition of treating Africans as savage animals and the African continent as a dirty, diseased place to be feared,” Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College and Kim Yi Dionne, an assistant professor of government at Smith College, wrote in a joint Washington Post op-ed.
Trans-border pandemics have afflicted mankind since humans first set foot on the planet. In recent years, many countries have to had make difficult decisions about managing epidemics like mad cow, bird flu and MERS. But the arguments for managing the disease seemed well reasoned and logical.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s large numbers of White homosexual North American males and IV drug users started dying mysteriously following lengthy, incurable illnesses. It took a while for scientists to figure that all of them carried a virus that suppressed or destroyed the immune system. And it took even longer for researchers to develop medications to ensure that being infected by the virus that causes AIDS did not have to be a guaranteed death sentence.
During those dark days, as scientists struggled to get to the bottom of the mystery, the disease disproportionately afflicted another group of people: Haitians. No one seemed to understand why. But a few came up with a theory that made sense. For decades, Haiti had been a major destination for sexual tourists from North America. For next to nothing, one observer said, a little Haitian boy could be had. The theorists speculated that the disease migrated to Africa when a significant number of Haitians moved to the Congo for work. These theories became the source of much finger pointing on the part of many Caribbean nations as the AIDS epidemic seemed to spiral out of control in the 80s.
But in spite of the threat to public health, there was no clamor to bar White males from certain colleges or to keep them out of certain countries. Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot.
Maybe the world hasn’t changed that much.
Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a columnist for the Los Angeles Wave, is a national-award winning writer. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.