By Gabriel Pariente
For over a year, the Ebola virus has spread like wildfire across West African countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Mali. To date, it is the worst outbreak of the disease since it was first diagnosed in the 1970’s and has also reached other continents like North America and Europe. However, it has not only caused widespread pain and suffering to people all over the world, but a sudden increase in hysteria, fear and prejudice towards citizens of African descent all over New York and other parts of the country.
“There’s an existing negative stereotype towards Africans, and the spread of diseases from the continent like Ebola, etc.… reinforce this stereotype that Africans are unclean and disease-ridden,” said Lynda Day, chair of Brooklyn College’s Africana Studies department. In the weeks after Dr. Craig Spencer became the first person from New York City to contract the Ebola virus, a mood of hysteria seemingly gripped the city leading to a disturbing increase in acts of prejudice towards members of the local African communities.
“One of our community organizers in the area had groups of high school students yell ‘Ebola! Ebola!’ at her,” said Amaha Kassa Excecutive director of African Communities Together. In Harlem, many braiding salons run by women from West Africa have seen a large decrease in business over the last two months, and many taxi drivers from the region have reported city residents not wanting to be in their cars and catch the illness, according to an article in Voice of America.
Several African citizens reported being on trains or buses where people will ask them where they’re from, and if they say Liberia or any other Ebola-stricken country they’ll be avoided like their criminals. Sadly, the prejudice is not only occurring among outside the world around us, but has also begun to trickle its way into city schools.
“One of our members told us how his daughter came home crying from school three days in a row due to her classmates teasing her about Ebola,” said Kassa. This type of incident also played out near Halloween at Bronx Intermediate School 318 when students bullied 6th grader Amidou Drame and his older brother Pape’ by refusing to give them the ball during their respective gym classes saying they’d spread Ebola to everyone if they touched the ball or were around their classmates.
They were then attacked in the school’s lunchroom after Amidou sneezed, and reportedly one student kept chanting “You’re Ebola!”. Luckily, the two boys avoided serious injuries.
“Americans love to fall in myths about things and simply disregard possible truths,” said Kyle Roberts, a junior at John Jay College. The outbreak of hysteria and discrimination against minority groups in America is not a rare phenomenon, and occurred frequently during the rise of the AIDS epidemic from the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s.
Since the cause of the illness was first connected to San Francisco’s large gay community, many assumed that homosexual men were direct carries of the disease. The illness was originally termed as “ gay cancer”, and as a result many members of the gay community were ostracized from their loved ones, homes and jobs due to the fear that they’d spread AIDS to whomever they were in contact with.
Haitians, living in the most impoverish country in the Western hemisphere, faced similar prejudices during that time, as the Caribbean region in general had the second highest infection rate for AIDS according the website medwiser.org , only topped by the African continent. Despite the fact that like Ebola, AIDS can only be spread via bodily fluids, lack of knowledge on how AIDS spread gave birth to the notion that since there were high rates of poverty, prostitution and crime in the region, Haitians were seen as impoverished third-world people who, like Africans, spread epidemics that would destroy our great country if we didn’t take steps to protect ourselves.
Fear often makes people turn to scapegoats for their problems, and it’s very easy as history has shown us to point the blame at others for the suffering of one’s own. Germany used the Jews as a scapegoat for their poverty and economic turmoil in post-World War I society, giving birth to Nazism. Jews were fired from their jobs, forced to self-identify themselves with yellow star, or harassed due to Nazi rhetoric of them being a “degenerate, evil race” that was ostracized from their peers and eventually murdered simply for who they were.
“It’s easy to stigmatize groups or communities of people that stand out because of their color or culture,” said Day. Many called for travel bans to West African Ebola-afflicted countries, and both N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo and N.J. Governor Chris Christie the ordered mandatory 21-day quarantine period under constant observation for anyone returning from Ebola-afflicted areas until they were cleared of illness and allowed back into the world.
Not everyone was for these measures, and were pleased that the orders were lifted.
“Thousands of people commute from New York to Africa daily, and yet there have very few Ebola cases around the tri-state area,” said Essie Guobadia a Brooklyn College junior from Nigeria. She went on to add that, “travel bans increase stigmas and fears of Africans because not everyone from the affected countries is carrying the disease, as well advocating discrimination by saying we don’t want these people here since they may be dangerous to us.”
Diseases like bird flu, SARS and even Mad Cow disease caused many people to start wearing masks, avoiding contact with people of Asian descent to avoid catching these dangerous illnesses, despite the fact that they posed almost no catastrophic health risks to the regular American citizen. Americans are deeply fearful of the unknown, and in times of turmoil these fears of anarchy and chaos give way to paranoia about things. There’s a view that whatever we are told or think we have witnessed must be true even if there’s evidence to the contrary that discredits the myths we’ve believed for such long periods of time.
“I went to a job interview recently, and after reviewing my application the lady asked me if I’d been to West Africa in the last year,” said Guobadia. She added that the woman, “wanted to know the answer for security reasons despite the fact that they’d had my application for a long period of time.”
Epidemics like Ebola are not new to humans, yet there is a continued pattern to scapegoat and distrust those who are not Anglo-Saxon born Americans due to hysteria. In the 20th century, many Americans distrusted those of Spanish descent under the impression that they were responsible for the spread of the “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918-19, even though the first case actually originated in Kansas and military camps throughout the country.
The same events occurred in the 14th century during the Black Plague when millions of Europeans became sick and died from a mysterious virus. Due to the fact that people of Jewish descent kept somewhat clean, sanitary households and didn’t get sick as often, people began to assume they were responsible for the spread of the virus by poisoning wells where many Christians drank. Jews were beaten, tortured and killed as hysteria swept through the populace even though there was no evidence to support this belief and modern science later proved rats carrying the disease from China were the causes for the Bubonic plague.
In some ways, diseases are terrible for how they spread but are made worse by the stereotypes and paranoia they produce among humans towards others, who are “Typhoid Mary’s” who unintentionally are blamed for spreading diseases they had no control over. Sadly, this trend has been going on for centuries and many hope that someday it will finally stop.
“People need to educate themselves about diseases like Ebola, and learn more about the continent of Africa itself,” said Day. “ We have to change the discourse and spread awareness to ensure that people don’t allow stigmas and misinformation to give birth to negative stereotypes in the future.”