Ebola, race and fear

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A woman puts on a surgical mask during hospital Ebola training in Alabama.Image source, AP

The examples of Ebola hysteria in the US are growing too numerous to count.

Two students from Rwanda, 2,600 miles (4,148km) from West Africa, are sent home from a New Jersey elementary school for 21 days. A Maine high school teacher is given three weeks off because she attended a convention in Dallas, Texas.

A Texas college sends out letters to prospective students from disease-free Nigeria informing them that they are no longer accepting applications from countries with "confirmed Ebola cases". A Pennsylvania high school football player is met by chants of "Ebola" from the opposing team. A middle school principal goes to a funeral in Zambia, also with no cases of Ebola, and is put on paid administrative leave for a week.

Some writers think they've found a theme that energises these fears, tying many of these incidents together: racism.

"In both the United States and Europe, Ebola is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the 'Dark Continent'," writes Robin Wright, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, for CNN. "The disease is persistently portrayed as West African, or African, or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black, even though nothing medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to Ebola."

And as the disease is associated with blacks, she says, it contributes to and feeds off already existing racism in Western society.

The Verge's Arielle Duhaime-Ross takes note of reports that residents of the immigrant-populated Dallas neighbourhood where Thomas Eric Duncan first displayed Ebola symptoms are experiencing "immense discrimination".

US opinion shifting on Ebola

A survey by Pew Research Center released on Tuesday suggests Americans are becoming more concerned about the spread of the Ebola - but they haven't lost faith in the US hospital system or the federal government to deal with any outbreaks.

Pew found that 41% of Americans are worried that they or a family member will be exposed to the virus (up from 32% in early October).

Among the 2,003 adults surveyed, 61% said they still have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in US hospitals "to diagnose and isolate" any possible Ebola cases. The federal government still has the trust of 54% of the public to prevent a major Ebola outbreak.

Nonstop news coverage of the Ebola story appears to have had an effect, with 98% of respondents saying they've heard at least "a little" about the disease.

"The colour of their skin and their accents make them a target, even though they never came into contact with Duncan, and therefore pose zero risk," she writes. "It doesn't matter: they're dark-skinned and foreign. They're in Dallas. They might be infectious."

The Guardian's Hannah Giorgis says examples like these shed light on the way many Westerners are viewing the outbreak.

"Ebola now functions in popular discourse as a not-so-subtle, almost completely rhetorical stand-in for any combination of 'African-ness', 'blackness', 'foreign-ness' and 'infestation' - a nebulous but powerful threat, poised to ruin the perceived purity of Western borders and bodies," she writes. "Dead African bodies are the nameless placeholders for (unwarranted, racist) 'panic', a conversation topic too heavy for the dinner table yet light enough for supermarket aisles."

According to the National Review's Charles CW Cooke, however, the accusations of racism are like the fable of the little boy who cried wolf. He says Giorgis and her "fellow travellers" are "shepherds of the asinine, undermining the very cause to which they hope to draw attention".

"We can either regard the word 'Ebola' as an opportunity for the promulgation of chichi sociology essays, or - preferably, I think - we can recognise that we are talking here about a serious problem that requires a serious remedy," he says.

Danusha Goska, writing in the American Thinker, asserts that race is a factor in the reaction to the Ebola outbreak, but not in the way liberals present it.

Instead, she writes, "white guilt" is the real complicating factor. It's preventing Western nations from taking the necessary steps to combat the disease, such as changing tribal customs that tolerate the consumption of possibly dangerous bush meat and encourage unsafe burial ceremonies that involve the handling of possibly contagious corpses.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The presence of the Ebola virus on US soil has set off a media frenzy

"White guilt shines the spotlight on white liberal heroism and reduces blacks to supporting players in the white man's drama," she writes. "Blacks exist only to be pathetic, to be helpless and to supply the white ego with a black object to save. Any problems that significantly involve black people are not to be talked about with the same clarity we devote to other problems."

For David Brooks of the New York Times, race isn't the problem, class is. Americans live in an increasingly segmented society, alienated from their political, cultural and scientific leaders.

"The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavour of fear," he writes. "It's not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It's a sour, existential fear. It's a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand."

More than 70 years ago the fear during World War Two prompted the US to round up more than 110,000 citizens of Japanese descent and put them in detention camps. They were easy to identify and thought to pose a threat to the nation's safety.

The US Supreme Court, in Korematsu v United States, said that such internments were constitutional. It's a precedent that the court has never overturned.

Fear can make a people commit unspeakable acts. Three cases of Ebola on US soil have set off reactions, and over-reactions, across the country. Whether the culprit is racism, xenophobia or simple ignorance, this crisis has revealed that foundation on which civil society rests can be uncertain.

Given the science of Ebola, the prospect of three cases turning into 300 or 3,000 in the US are miniscule. But the threat Ebola has exposed - what Brooks calls the "weakness in the fabric of our culture" - has been laid bare.

The next crisis, the next contagion of fear, may not be so easy to contain.