As of a week ago, the U.S. was deemed “Ebola free.” Yet, from the beginning of September and until the mid-term elections, news outlets worked themselves into a frenzy in covering the Ebola outbreak. I believe you cannot discuss the US response to Ebola without mentioning the long-standing anti-African bias imbedded in America.
Since the days of slavery, Africa has been perceived as a place of savage, uncivilized people who are unable to care for themselves. These ideas continued persist to today. Africa is viewed as the “dark continent” devoid of geographical and cultural diversity. Africa is often discussed as a monolithic country, not as a continent with 53 countries, numerous languages, varied climate, and multiple regions. Given this lack of geographical and cultural literacy, people have trouble grasping that the Ebola outbreak is contained in a few countries located in Western Africa.
Numerous reports have emerged about Africans living in the U.S. feeling discriminated against and being treated as outcasts in their community. Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island attended a town hall meeting with New York City health officials to discuss instances of discrimination. Several individuals reported being hesitant to tell anyone about traveling abroad, even to non-infected countries, due to fear of losing their jobs or being sent home from work. Furthermore, people throughout the U.S. have called for cancelling all flights to Ebola infected countries and to automatically quarantine those who traveled to the region, regardless of whether a person is showing symptoms.
The narrative surrounding Ebola has induced a sense of panic and hypervigilance in the public. Researchers and healthcare workers who have recently traveled to infected countries are being quarantined, even though they have tested negative for the disease. They have also been banned from attending events that can provide the public with correct information of the disease. These actions have been undertaken despite medical evidence showing that Ebola can only be transmitted via direct contact with body fluid after disease symptoms have emerged.
Such hypervigilance and stigma associated with the disease can have a deleterious impact on providing treatment in West Africa, where there is a pressing need for healthcare workers. Concerns have been raised as to how the hyperbolic response to Ebola will decrease the number of healthcare workers who choose to volunteer in Ebola infected countries, and in return, worsen the mortality and incidence rates. It begs the question as to whether the response would be the same if an infectious disease spread to a similar scale in a European country. With European countries being major tourist destinations for (mostly upper-middle class and beyond) Americans and viewed as similar to the U.S. in terms of societal mores, economics, and political structure, it is uncertain that Americans would respond with hypervigilance to the same degree. It is possible that there would be a push and incentives to encourage U.S. health care workers to travel to the infected country and assist in providing medical care.
As a country we need to consider how our response to Ebola may increase the potential of healthcare discrimination for Africans living in the U.S. African immigrants already report lower healthcare access. The xenophobia, misinformation, and alarm surrounding the Ebola crisis may cause African immigrants to be hesitant in seeking healthcare services, which in turn can exacerbate disparities in infectious diseases and mental health treatment.
Image by Neil Moralee under the creative common license.