Ebola: Separating Fact from Fiction

Let me tell you a story about a disease straight out of Stephen King’s darkest novels. Once you’re infected, there’s a high chance you’re doomed. But you won’t know it for a while. Instead, for eight to 10 days you’ll seem normal, talking to your friends, doing your homework, eating, sleeping and procrastinating. The usual. Even as the signs begin to show, you won’t know what it is. The dull thump of a headache and the mild warmth of a fever will tell you you’ve got the common cold. “I’m not feeling too well today,” you might say to your roommate. “I think I’ll sleep in a bit tomorrow.”

Here the road of fate diverges. You could get better, but you don’t. You begin to bleed everywhere — crimson oozes from your eyes, nose and mouth. It’s in your vomit. It’s in your toilet. The virus responsible could infect anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with your bodily fluids. After a while, blood vessels within your body begin to leak, leading to organ failure. You die. The end. The story is, of course, about the latest media superstar — Ebola. And this is what could happen to you if you contracted the virus. That is, if you contracted it.

Yes, Ebola is scary. The current outbreak is the biggest in history since the discovery of the virus in 1976. According to the World Health Organization, more than 8,900 people in West Africa have contracted the disease. About 4,400 people have died, making the mortality rate about 50 percent. Naturally, it’s become the nation’s latest obsession. If you’ve been in the U.S. any time in the past month you’ve seen it. The 24/7 cable news channels are covering every tremble of the three Ebola cases diagnosed on U.S. soil, and the political pundits are using fear-mongering techniques to their advantage. A looming sense of panic is pervading every nook and cranny of the U.S. But as terrifying as Ebola seems, what’s really problematic is not a potential epidemic in the States, but the way we’ve reacted to it.

The current media coverage of Ebola is unwarranted and misleading. Fact: only three cases have been diagnosed so far on U.S. soil. Statistic: 30 percent of Americans see Ebola as a major public health threat, according to a recent Harris/Health Day survey. Fact: the U.S. spends extensive amounts of money on healthcare and has infrastructure of the sort West Africa could only dream of. Statistic: 75 percent of Americans are worried that Ebola carriers will infect others before showing symptoms, the same poll found. Let me repeat that. Seventy-Five percent of those polled believed something scientifically impossible. Add the fact that Ebola is hard to spread — only contact with bodily fluids can transmit the virus — and it’s easy to see that Americans are misinformed. Misinformed? When every day’s edition of the New York Times has the word “EBOLA” splashed across the front page? It seems contradictory. But news sources are businesses. Businesses deliver what consumers want, and what consumers want right now is coverage of a virus so exotic, dramatic, dangerous and fascinating it could be the star of a horror movie. It’s what happens with every serial killer or school shooting — the morbid curiosity within us all won’t let go of it. It’s good that media sources, when they analyze the risk of an American Ebola epidemic, tend to stay scientifically accurate. The problem is that such analyses are rare. And the sheer volume of recent coverage (does anyone else feel buried? No? Bombarded, maybe?) only undoes that accuracy. It’s clear that this over-emphasis is disfiguring the public’s perception of the disease, blowing air into our idea of its relative importance. Our perception of the risk and danger factor is shaped by how much we hear about Ebola, whether we know the facts or not. It’s dangerously easy for these perceptions to morph into ignorance and fear. This “Ebola scare” is proof enough.

The nation’s response to Ebola doesn’t breed just misinformation. It’s a little hard to see but it’s there: an ugly undercurrent of racism of a time-worn variety, of “us” and “them.” This past Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, made clear his unease over rising anti-African sentiment in Europe and the U.S. Every Ebola patient must be “treated with dignity,” he said, “not stigmatized or cast out.” And of course we agree. Who wouldn’t? It’d be cruel to treat Ebola victims like they’re not human, like they’re mere vectors for disease. But consider the following: when Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person to be diagnosed of Ebola in the U.S., the media latched onto his Liberian origin. It suggested that he had come to the U.S. knowing he had Ebola, that he had deliberately tried to spread the virus. When two nurses who had treated him tested positive, Duncan became less than a person in the media’s narrative — he was a contaminant, the first infiltration of a foreign disease into America. His identity as a poor black Liberian citizen didn’t help matters. The portrayal of West Africa, where Ebola has hit hardest, is even worse. It’s always been this way, but even those sympathetic to West Africa’s plight reduce African suffering and death into mere statistics. We hear “8,900 infected in West Africa,” and what do we visualize? Huddled masses of Africans vomiting blood? When’s the last time you saw an individual’s story attached to those numbers? Those unsympathetic to this misery are happy to add to the negative connotations surrounding anything African. A Newsweek cover from August featured a chimpanzee as a backdrop to the words “A BACK DOOR FOR EBOLA: SMUGGLED BUSHMEAT COULD SPARK A U.S. EPIDEMIC.” The tradition of linking Africans to apes goes back centuries to imperialism and social Darwinism. In 21st-century America, it’s racist in a way that I can only describe as flippant. Evoking the concept of bushmeat reinforces associations of Africa with exoticism, dirtiness and barbarism. Plus, apes have little to do with Ebola — it’s believed that the fruit bat is the original carrier of the virus. These sentiments have begun to leak into current political discourse. Many Americans tout travel bans as a preventative measure to a possible U.S. epidemic, but how extensive should these travel bans be? How would we determine which passengers to let in, and which ones to keep out? These are questions that are hard to answer without looking into the ugly face of rising anti-African prejudices in the West.

In the midst of outrageous claims by various political pundits, misleading media coverage and problematic portrayals of those most affected by the virus, the American public needs to remember that the key to containing the Ebola outbreak lies in West Africa itself. We need to stop panicking fruitlessly. We need to begin seeing victims as fellow human beings, as worthy of our attention as ourselves. We need to aid West Africa itself, where the situation (unlike in the U.S.) is truly dire. So let’s all take a collective breath, deep and calm, and focus our efforts on the people for whom Ebola is actually a terrifying, everyday reality.