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Published On: Mon, Nov 10th, 2014

Ebola: The triumph of paranoia

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By ‘Tope Oriola

Ebola paranoia has been remarkably fast and furious: A seven-year old Connecticut (USA) girl who had just returned from Nigeria was barred from attending her elementary school late last month because of fears expressed by classmates and parents that she might have Ebola. She was allowed to return to school after the school district settled out of court a law suit filed by her father.

A 46 year-old Nigerian in the UK, Mr. Sam Ogunnoiki, was informed by his employer before his 18th October trip to Lagos that many of his co-workers had “voiced their concerns about the possibility of your carrying the Ebola virus back with you” and would be “extremely reluctant” to work with him on his return. Ogunnoiki was not allowed to return to work and eventually resigned. One teacher in Kentucky also resigned following “strong parent concerns” when she returned from a trip to Kenya.

The spectacle surrounding the case of a US nurse who had gone to Sierra Leone is more melodramatic. She refused to quarantine herself as demanded by governments in the US states of Maine and New Jersey. She has become an instant celebrity for her intransigence. Her case and those of others that space would not allow me to state here highlight the interplay of ignorance, paranoia, racism, disease, and media construction of yet another moral panic. I will try to unpack these issues.

What must first be noted is that several of the “concerns” leading to the emotional torture of the stated non-victims of Ebola were expressed by members of the public in their capacity as parents, co-workers, and classmates. These issues are not primarily the handwork of some whacky politicians although politicians like the Governors of Maine and New Jersey have gratefully latched on to the concerns and implemented paranoid policies. It should surprise no one that active public involvement or acquiescence has often played pivotal role at critical junctures of mistreatment of segments of populations. What is disappointing is that leaders ought not to perpetuate what Sherene Razack calls the ‘will not to know’.

Ignorance about a certain social space called “Africa” partly explains why someone who went to Kenya, where to date there been no case of Ebola, would be required to quarantine herself. Africa appears to be one small country with a huge population in the mind’s eye of some. How a continent of over 50 countries gets consistently and generationally portrayed as a few streets somewhere is quite stunning. Western media consistently use the term “Africa” in reports about any of over 50 African countries (with the possible exception of “Somali piracy” and “Nigerian 419 or fraud”). The impact of this strange synecdochic portrayal is a serious one.

Insiders in a US presidential campaign, for instance, revealed that Sarah Palin, Senator John McCain’s presidential running mate, did not know that Africa was a continent. Palin’s legendary ignorance demonstrates a degree of insularity of knowledge that is disseminated, particularly below the university level and an individual’s chronic unpreparedness for basic global citizenship. I recall a handful of my students at the University of Massachusetts Boston, politely asking about my sources of information regarding world affairs while bemoaning the limited focus of their grade school education. I have not independently confirmed what the grade school curricula look like but my American students did strongly feel they had not been well served as global citizens.

Media organizations offer the public a potent window to the world. They often indicate how an issue will be discussed and how it will not be discussed by providing the images and lexicon for conversations. Former President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa has hypothesized that good news about Africa does not sell. He claimed in a 2006 guest lecture at the University of Manitoba that news about Africa conformed to “three Ds”: Deaths, Diseases and Devastation. Images of hungry and sick children are the first contact of many Euro-Americans with Africa and Africans thanks to our friends in the mercy industry (humanitarian sector) and their degrading television advertisements for financial support from Western subjects.

Never mind that countries like China would never allow their poor citizens to be portrayed that way. It is also fascinating to note that marginalized populations in many Western countries — Maoris in New Zealand, and Aboriginal peoples in Australia, for instance — are often largely ignored by the same humanitarian and media organizations. That is a topic for another day. The point is that there may be a link between those television images and public overreactions to pandemics such as Ebola.

There are other issues involved in Ebola paranoia. A Nigerian scholar, Dr. Charles Adeyanju, an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, published a book Deadly Fever: Racism, Disease and a Media Panic on the case of a Congolese woman who was misdiagnosed with Ebola in Hamilton, Canada.

Dr. Adeyanju notes that the media appeared to “over-dramatize the case while implicating issues of race and immigration”. The Congolese woman who was eventually found to have malaria was denied “victimhood” status and largely lampooned for causing a health scare, according to Adeyanju. Interestingly, black children were either sent away or left school during the period because of taunts from their peers. Some were also told to go back to Africa. Telling black Canadian children who have never been to their parents’ home countries to go back to Africa is quite revealing. It is a marker of matching race with space.

The flow of “third world” bodies such as Liberian citizen, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola in Dallas, is generally viewed as problematic. Such bodies generate anxieties even in the absence of pandemics. The ongoing crisis is not merely about Ebola. It is about where the disease comes from and whom it affects. Conspiracy theories have emerged in social media about the quality of care Mr. Duncan received. I am not a conspiracy theorist. What is clear is that racial issues are inherent in the ongoing pandemic.

There would probably be more anxiety about flu in North America if the concerns about Ebola were merely about disease and mortality. For example, an American government agency, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states on its website that “from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, flu-associated deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people” in the US. Note that those are annual estimates. The same organization estimates that there have been 7,991 “laboratory-confirmed” cases and 4,818 deaths associated with Ebola in West Africa as of November 2, 2014. Therefore, it stretches credulity to presuppose that the ongoing paranoia is merely about Ebola and potential for contagion.

By the logic of Ebola paranoia, people ought to fear traveling to some parts of the world due to other kinds of pandemics. For instance, the Brady Campaign, a respected organization concerned with gun violence issues, estimates that: “On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.” That translates to 11,680 murders per annum through gun violence. Pandemics come in different shapes and social action is required. Governments of Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal and others that have been affected by Ebola should commit resources to major interdisciplinary research aimed at finding a vaccine and cure for Ebola in addition to improving health care.

‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada.


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