The first time a reporter asked a CDC representative whether Thomas Duncan — the first patient to receive an Ebola diagnosis in the US — was an American citizen, the question seemed pretty tame. One could excuse it as a general inquiry about the Duncan’s nationality during the first press conference announcing his diagnosis. But after the CDC declined to answer, the question kept coming. "Is he a citizen?" reporters repeatedly asked. "Is he one of us?" they meant.
"Is he one of us?" they meant.
The current Ebola crisis has been tinged with racism and xenophobia. The disease rages in West Africa, and has therefore largely infected people of color. But somehow Americans were among the first to get a dose of Zmapp — the experimental anti-Ebola drug — this summer, despite the fact that Africans have been dying from the current Ebola epidemic since its emergence in Guinea in December. There are a lot of reasons for that, of course. The drug is potentially dangerous and only exists in short supply. It’s also extremely costly. And it originated in Canada, so it's unsurprising that North America controls its use.
And now that Ebola has "reached" the US, American privilege — white privilege, especially — is floating to the surface, in even less subtle ways.
From Vox.com: Living in a country ravaged by Ebola.
The difference in treatment for US patients and African patients is stark, beyond the use of experimental drugs. Some Ebola-stricken regions in West Africa don’t have access to fuel to power ambulances, and many health workers lack the protective gear to stave off infection. Which is why it's so strange that Duncan's health has been used as an excuse to voice concerns about the presence of foreigners in Dallas. Instead of asking government officials why the WHO has a much smaller budget than the CDC or why it has suffered massive cuts in the last two years, Americans have preferred to focus on themselves.
Duncan’s health is an excuse to voice concerns about foreigners
Yesterday, The Raw Story wrote about how immigrants living in the same neighborhood as Duncan’s family were facing immense discrimination. Some have been turned away from their jobs, David Edwards writes, while others have been refused service in restaurants. The color of their skin and their accents makes them a target, even though they never came into contact with Duncan, and therefore pose zero risk. It doesn’t matter: they’re dark-skinned and foreign. They’re in Dallas. They might be infectious.
Now, an ugly new hashtag has emerged: #Obola, a coinage that was popularized thanks to a tweet by conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, and a Michael Savage radio segment. If you don’t get the reference, I don’t blame you. The President’s name doesn't exactly resemble "Ebola." But D’Souza, a known "birther," has somehow managed to liken a name like Obama with a disease that’s raging in Africa — not in the US. Predictably, this has given racist xenophobic Americans a banner to rally around.
America: your xenophobia is showing. Many have lost sight that the only way to become infected with Ebola is by coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who’s showing symptoms. Others have ignored the fact that, so far, no one who came into contact with Duncan has developed symptoms of Ebola. Instead, there are calls for larger quarantines in Dallas — or a continent-wide one in Africa — which would only lead to more infections, and a greater sense of panic.
Xenophobic rhetoric has dehumanized individuals dealing with a terrible disease
Ebola is scary because it causes quick, gruesome deaths. But it isn’t easy to transmit. Had we acted sooner, had we prevented the WHO’s budget from being cut, we probably wouldn’t be dealing with such large numbers of infected people now. It’s not like we don’t know how to stop Ebola — we’ve done it in the past. That’s what we should be talking about. We should be asking why the first case of Ebola transmission outside Africa happened in Spain, a country that recently experienced public health cuts.
We’re playing catch-up, and the CDC is optimistic. But when people spend more energy on dehumanizing individuals in Dallas than on urging politicians to help the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, we all lose out.