Ebola Story Puts Old Fears in New Virus

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Ebola Story Puts Old Fears in New Virus

Behind media obsession, a sad old story of poverty and priorities

Ebola virus.  (Photo: CDC Global)

As of early November, there have been four known cases of the Ebola virus in the US: Liberian Thomas Duncan, who was brought to Dallas Presbyterian Hospital and subsequently died of the disease, two nurses who cared for Duncan (both cured), and a doctor who became symptomatic in New York City after returning from treating Ebola patients in Guinea.

The epidemic has so far killed at least 4,800 people in West Africa. There is no reason to believe Ebola will or could exact analogous tolls here, because, despite ooga-booga stories about Africans carrying tainted “bushmeat” in their luggage (Newsweek, 8/21/14; FAIR Blog, 8/28/14), the forces behind the viral outbreak largely have to do with infrastructure deficits and lack of access to healthcare.

While warning against overconfidence, science journalist Laurie Garrett (CounterSpin, 9/26/14) suggests a “night and day” difference between the US capacity to respond to Ebola and that of worst-hit countries Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which “have undergone brutal civil wars, are among the poorest countries on the planet, with very weak governments that had difficulty even before the epidemic in maintaining trust” with citizens, and where health infrastructure is “all but nonexistent.”

In other words, Ebola is less a story about a bizarre new disease and its unpredictably disastrous capacities, and more a sad old story about poverty and priorities.

But sober and data-driven isn’t exactly US media’s style, particularly when dealing with a disease associated with There that is seen to be coming Here. The concoction of ignorance and breathlessness has generated revealing moments like the focus on “Clipboard Man” (FAIR Blog, 10/17/14).

When one of the Dallas nurses, Amber Vinson, was being transported to an Atlanta hospital with a special isolation facility, video and photos appeared showing a team in full-body Hazmat suits loading her gurney onto the plane. Standing a little further away was a man in plain clothes with a clipboard (Today, 10/16/14).

National media figures joined the ensuing social media storm. Vaughn Sterling, a senior producer of CNN’s Situation Room, tweeted, “One of these guys didn’t get the memo.” CNN’s chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto added, “Let’s hope he was holding his breath.” The inaccurate implication was that mere proximity to an infected person puts one at risk.

A spokesperson for the airline (ABC News, 10/16/14) came forward to explain that the man was the company’s medical protocol supervisor:

Our medical professionals in the biohazard suits have limited vision and mobility, and it is the protocol supervisor’s job to watch each person carefully and give them verbal directions to ensure no close-contact protocols are violated. There is absolutely no problem with this and in fact [it] ensures an even higher level of safety for all involved.

Healthcare experts have tried to assure the US public that Ebola is not a very easy virus to catch. Those most at risk are medical professionals who have worked in close contact with patients in West Africa, and these are the people most aware of the disease’s symptoms and best able to monitor their own health and protect that of others.

The returning healthcare worker was subjected to political and media demands for medically unnecessary restrictions.That knowledge didn’t seem to help Kaci Hickox. The nurse returned from Sierra Leone to a political firestorm that saw New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demanding she be held in an isolation tent near the Newark airport—despite having no symptoms. Hickox was subsequently transferred to her home in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage, with medical bona fides as obscure as Christie’s, insisted she be quarantined for a 21-day incubation period.

Hickox drew attention by resisting these medically baseless restrictions, including going for a bike ride that media covered as though she were O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco.

While pundits called her “selfish” (Hannity, 10/29/14; O’Reilly Factor, 10/30/14) and worse, Hickox tried to emphasize that her treatment by officials and the press boded poorly for other returning healthcare workers, and to suggest that attention be directed toward the real crisis of Ebola victims in West Africa. She recounted for the Maine Sunday Telegram (11/2/14) her haunting final night in Sierra Leone, when she saw a young girl die: “To watch a 10-year-old die alone in a tent and know there wasn’t anything you could do...it’s hard.”

By now, there has already been a backlash against the more inflammatory notions emanating not only from the likes of Matt Drudge (who advised his Twitter followers to “self-quarantine”—10/15/14) but from CNN, where Ashleigh Banfield (10/6/14) evoked the possibility that ISIS might “send a few of its suicide killers into Ebola-affected zones and then get them on some mass transit, somewhere where they would need to be to effect the most damage.”

Banfield’s colleague, Don Lemon (10/9/14), was meanwhile treating viewers to the wisdom of opthamologist Robin Cook, presented as “The Man Who Wrote the Book on Ebola.” He did, of course; but the book (Outbreak) was fiction.

Such excesses led to stories like “Worst Side Effect of Ebola Is Hot Air” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/18/14) and “Deadly Virus Must Be Covered Responsibly, Not Hysterically” (USA Today, 10/28/14). Then came the backlash against the backlash: The Wall Street Journal online (10/24/14) denounced “The Ebola Anti-Hysteria Hysteria.” “A little Ebola panic might be helpful,” suggested the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker (10/16/14).

If the worst of Ebola coverage represents US media at their noisiest—and debate over whether coverage was too hysterical or not hysterical enough shows media at their most predictably self-absorbed—the story has also highlighted some painful silences.

Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present, noted that the racism of some coverage is nothing new.

Mary Mallon, known to journalism as "Typhoid Mary."“Fears of the other” have attended perceptions of disease “ever since the germ theory first associated microbes with illness,” Washington told FAIR’s CounterSpin (10/24/14), citing “Typhoid Mary,” an Irish woman when they were a “despised minority,” along with accusations that Chinese people were spreading plague in 1900s San Francisco and charges that Jews fomented disease in Polish ghettos.

But in present-day America, Washington noted, “when infection strikes and it’s associated with black people, all the stops get pulled out.”

In fact, evolutionary biologists have begun speaking of a phenomenon dubbed “protective prejudice,” in which a sort of “behavioral immune system” mixes social, political, psychological and biological factors, leading to fear and hatred toward those perceived (however inaccurately) as bearing contagion. It’s not surprising to see this cocktail of fears and biases “conscripted,” Washington says, “to play into all sorts of agendas—closing the border, for example.”

Also familiar in conversations about Africa are references to a supposed “fear of medicine” that’s hampering care. “We keep reading that ‘we go into these areas and try to help people but they won’t cooperate,’” Washington says, a storyline that presents people as “irrational” who might have very real reasons to avoid people who are “helicoptering in.”

For some, this “irrationality” is grounds to deny Africans care, even in the US. As Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros (10/2/14) put it:

In these countries, they do not believe in traditional medical care. So someone could get off a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor that would practice Santeria. This is a bigger fear.

This should all be familiar to those who remember inglorious coverage of the AIDS crisis, in which making life-saving drugs available to sub-Saharan Africans was dismissed as impractical because, as the US Agency for International Development’s Andrew Natsios (Boston Globe, 6/7/01) put it:

You have to take these drugs a certain number of hours each day, or they don’t work. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives. And if you say, 1 o’clock in the afternoon, they do not know what you are talking about. They know morning, they know noon, they know evening, they know the darkness at night.

ABC News (7/8/99) claimed without evidence that experts believed that many patients in Africa were unlikely to follow prescriptions, so “it’s better to let [them] die.”

Less explored, then as now, were priorities of drug development. The New York Times (10/24/14) reported that an Ebola vaccine had been shelved in early stages of testing because it didn’t look to be profitable to drugmakers. “People invest in order to get money back,” stated a source.

The idea that drug companies resist “spending the enormous sums needed to develop products useful mostly to countries with little ability to pay” is chilling enough, but it’s also incomplete. Left out are not only the Herculean effort these companies put into preventing poorer countries from developing cheaper generic equivalents (Truthout, 10/10/14), but also the role the developing world plays in creating the drugs in the first place. “The developed world makes a great deal of money by testing medications cheaply in the developing world,” notes Washington:

Although we keep portraying Africans as supplicants—they’re asking for our help, they’re begging for medicine—in my opinion the reality is exactly the opposite. We owe them.

For any potential Ebola drugs developed now, in response to the virus’ encroachment on the West, not to be distributed to Africans, she says, would be “absolutely unacceptable, for obvious ethical reasons but also for economic justice.”

Economic justice figures also in emerging questions, unheard in corporate media, about the relationship between deforestation and changes in land use in West Africa, largely in service to multinational corporations like Firestone, that appear to have increased contacts between local people and the bats deemed the virus’s primary carriers (TheRealNews, 11/2/14).

No one suggests that journalists should know more than medical professionals about a disease that is largely unfamiliar to most people, or strive to speak definitively about evolving events.

It is fair to insist that they delineate what they know from what they don’t, and resist speculation and rumor-mongering. Not just because these have no place in responsible public health reporting, but because misinformation has effects. In this case, these include both the fanning of violent xenophobia —as we’ve already seen in the case of, for example, Senegalese-American boys in the Bronx being beaten up while their attackers shouted “Ebola!” (Gothamist, 10/27/14)—and the individual and societal problems resulting from a misunderstanding of relative risk.

As of this writing, you are still statistically more likely to marry a Kardashian than to contract Ebola in the United States. Media should report accordingly.

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra!and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press).

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