American Green Card
Ebola Fears Turn Into an Epidemic of Racism and Hysteria
Thus far, there have been just eight confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States following an outbreak in West Africa. Far more contagious here has been a new virus of hysteria — and of the sort of ignorant discrimination that immigrants in general and Africans specifically have endured for decades.
People are being shunned and mocked for having visited, or even for simply having been born in, Africa — and anywhere in Africa will do, afflicted with Ebola or not. Others face discrimination simply for living in the same neighborhood where a single Ebola patient once lived. Politicians and pundits have seriously discussed closing our borders to entire nations. Panic is dividing the country at a time when the U.S. and indeed the whole world needs to pull together to solve a viral health crisis.
Early signs of Ebola hysteria came after Liberian Thomas Duncan became the first person in the U.S. reported to have the disease a few weeks ago. Even before Duncan died from Ebola, immigrants who lived in his Dallas, Texas neighborhood faced discrimination and other forms of disrespect. They were turned away from local jobs, stores, and restaurants, while frightened tutors refused to work with their children.
Sixty miles southeast of Dallas, Navarro College earlier this month denied admission to two Nigerian students, not because they were diagnosed with Ebola but simply because they were from a country stricken by the disease. Never mind that Nigeria did a remarkable job in containing Ebola, went six weeks without new cases, and this week was declared Ebola free by the World Health Organization.
Such racial embarrassments aren’t confined to Texas. The week before last in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a Guinean high school soccer player from Nazareth Area High School was subjected to chants of “Ebola” from opposing players on rival Northampton High School’s team. The chants left him in tears. Northampton’s head and assistant coach have since resigned from their positions and disciplinary action against the heckling players is pending. Meanwhile, a few parents in Mississippi decided to pull their children from a middle school after discovering the school’s principal returned from a trip to Zambia, a country nowhere near the Ebola outbreak.
Liberia’s immigrant population in Staten Island, New York, reportedly the largest outside of Liberia, is also subject to unfortunate discrimination thanks to Ebola. “When they see you’re African, they’re kind of afraid to even shake your hands, you know, to talk with you and stuff,” one Liberian male told NY1. Another man said that while doing his school’s physical, the examiners “had to pull me, isolate me, ask me questions like how long I been here, just from knowing that I’m from Liberia,” according to the news channel.
The Village Voice awkwardly added to the stereotypes last week. A story about how the Ebola panic affected the Nigerian Independence Day Parade was headlined “Cloudy With a Chance of Ebola?” The piece, apparently written by a writer of Nigerian descent, was a generally thoughtful exploration of the intersection of ignorance, nationality, and health concerns, but commenters could not get past the headline, which was criticized as “disrespectful,” “stupid,” “ignorant,” “offensive,” “despicable,” “racist,” and worse.
More worrisome than grassroots Ebola hysteria are the calls for official national security policies rooted in the same sort of ignorance. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) is among those in favor of a ban on travel to and from countries stricken with Ebola outbreaks. “No, you’re not coming here, not until this situation is solved in Africa ,” Upton said recently. “We should not be allowing these folks in, period.” Talk-show host and noted icon of religious tolerance Bill Maher has also thrown his support behind the idea of national quarantines.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden has done his best to try and combat this sort of hysteria with facts. “We don’t want to isolate parts of the world, or people who aren’t sick, because that’s going to drive patients with Ebola underground, making it infinitely more difficult to address the outbreak,” Frieden wrote in a blog entry last week. Charity organization Doctors Without Borders also poured cold water on any national lockdown ideas last month, saying that a ban placed on Sierra Leone would not prevent Ebola from spreading.
That sort of educational outreach is sorely needed right now. Spouting racist chants, discriminating against entire neighborhoods, nations, and continents, and isolating whole countries will only create unnecessary division around a health problem that requires a unified response.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez/AP
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With U.S. Ebola fear running high, African immigrants face ostracism
(Reuters) – When Zuru Pewu picked up her 4-year-old son, Micah, from kindergarten at a Staten Island, New York, public school recently, a woman pointed at her in front of about 30 parents and their children, and started shouting.
“She kept screaming, ‘These African bitches brought Ebola into our country and are making everybody sick!'” said Pewu, 29, who emigrated from Liberia in 2005. “Then she told her son, ‘You know the country that’s called Liberia that they show on the TV? That’s where these bitches are from.'”
Pewu’s experience points to an alarming trend. While many Americans have reached out to help, African communities in the United States are reporting an increasing number of incidents of ostracism.
Thursday’s news that a physician who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa has tested positive for the disease in New York heightened anxieties even further.
Some Liberians, whose home country has been hardest hit by the worst outbreak of the virus on record, say they are being shunned by friends and co-workers and fear losing their jobs.
In California, doctors refused to examine a child believed to have been in contact with someone who traveled to West Africa but turned out to have no risk of Ebola, a nurses’ association said. In Rhode Island, two women said they were disinvited to a baby shower for a co-worker.
And in South Carolina, a high school student was sent home for 14 days because the student’s parent had visited Senegal, a country that has had one non-fatal case of Ebola and was declared Ebola-free last week, according to a school spokesman.
At least two speeches by Liberians have been canceled by U.S. universities, and a college in Texas refused admission to Nigerian students over worries about the virus even though that country has had few cases.
Oretha Bestman-Yates, a healthcare worker in New York, said she was barred from returning to her job after a trip to Liberia – despite 21 days of quarantine and no signs of illness.
“People are looking at Liberians as if we have Ebola in our DNA,” said Ezekiel Solee, 55, a pastor in Rhode Island at a meeting in Providence on Tuesday to discuss the stigma. “Even when you hang your jacket, no one else wants to hang his jacket near you because they are afraid.”
This week, President Barack Obama’s administration issued new guidelines for hospitals treating suspected Ebola cases and ordered all travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – the West African countries most affected by the disease – to be funneled for screening through five selected airports.
Four people in the United States have been diagnosed with Ebola, which as of Wednesday had infected 9,911 people in Africa and killed 4,868 since the outbreak began earlier this year, the World Health Organization said.
Many Republicans, joined by some Democrats, have called for a travel ban to the region. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh linked the case of Thomas Duncan, a Liberian who died of Ebola in Dallas, to illegal immigration, saying there was a “huge Liberian community of illegal immigrants in Dallas.”
Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of the book “The Culture of Fear,” said the combination of Ebola fear and racial prejudice makes xenophobic reactions to dark-skinned people from West Africa even more likely.
“One has to wonder: If these were Swedes, would we be seeing the same response?” he asked.
Alexander Kollie, 43, president of the Liberian Ministerial Fellowship of Rhode Island, said he feels increasingly ostracized.
“Because we are from Africa and our skin color identifies us as being from Africa, we are being treated differently,” he said. “People avoid us, and they are afraid of us.”
But fear of Ebola also runs deep among West Africans. Several Liberian community associations in the United States have asked members to voluntarily quarantine themselves if they have traveled to the affected countries.
In Staten Island’s Little Liberia, where Pewu lives, streets bustle with men and women in bright traditional attire, loudly greeting each other in their native languages.
But some here have begun limiting their greetings to verbal salutes.
Tamba Aghailas, 42, a human resources specialist who recently traveled to Liberia, said so many people in the community were uncomfortable touching him when he returned that he stopped greeting acquaintances with a handshake.
Experts like Dr. Mark Rupp, an infectious disease specialist at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which treated Ebola-infected cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, urged the public to resist irrational fear of Ebola, which is spread through contact with body fluids of someone who is showing symptoms.
“We even have some examples here in our own community – children of parents who are working in our biocontainment unit being shunned,” he said. “That level of paranoia is just not helpful, and it’s just not appropriate.” (Sharon Bernstein reported from Sacramento, California.; Additional reporting by Sebastien Malo in New York, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina, Svea Herbst in Providence, Rhode Island, Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas, Ian Simpson in Washington, D.C., Marisa Helms in Minneapolis and David Bailey in Minneapolis. Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Douglas Royalty)