The Ebola crisis has gripped the American media, and by extension the imagination of the public, punctuated by breathless pronouncements from TV news reporters of the medical status of actual and potential victims of the disease; hysteria-inducing magazine covers, like this issue of Bloomberg Businessweek sporting the message “Ebola Is Coming” in blood- smeared letters; and Facebook feeds dominated by click-bait images of microscopic photos of the virus with eerie back-lit tangles of fat worms symbolizing the foreign bodies that could invade us all.
But the foreign bodies of the Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to have developed the disease while on U.S. soil, and those of West Africans represent the common targets of an age-old American disease: xenophobia.
Duncan’s family, stricken with grief over his death, has already questioned the fact that the only person to die of Ebola on U.S. soil so far is a black man. They say Duncan’s death was the result of actions that could have been racially motivated given that he was not moved to the same hospital where other Ebola patients successfully received treatment. In fact, while other Ebola patients were seen as victims, Duncan was viewed by authorities as a malicious carrier of the deadly disease. Even as he battled for his life, a county prosecutor publicly considered filing criminal charges against him.
Perceptions matter, and in our current social and political context, the question posed by his family is a valid one, if only because in the wake of his story, we are already seeing a disturbing level of backlash against dark-skinned immigrants, including children of African immigrants in Dallas being labeled “Ebola kids,” and residents in Duncan’s immigrant-heavy neighborhood feeling personally discriminated against at work and at restaurants.
A small college outside Dallas has unilaterally made the decision to rescind its admissions to foreign students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases, including Nigeria, where the disease has just been officially declared under control. Conservative hatred for Barack Obama based on his Kenyan heritage and foreign-sounding name has yielded a moniker all too revealing of right-wing racism: #Obola, which, if it is not obvious enough, combines the president’s name with that of the deadly, infectious, disease of African origin. Incidents of discrimination against people of African origin have also been observed in some European countries.
This should not surprise us in the least. Immigrants have often been viewed as the carriers of pestilence and disease. In July, many conservative lawmakers made unsubstantiated claims of unaccompanied Central American migrant children bringing diseases into the U.S. It is an all-too-familiar narrative with a sordid history.
Let us put the fear of Ebola spreading in the U.S. into perspective. There are at least two concerns related to infectious diseases in the U.S. that we ought to worry about far more than Ebola—and neither of them involve immigrants.
First, a dangerous strain of the common summer respiratory ailment enterovirus, which mostly affects children, has emerged this year in larger than expected numbers. EV-D68 has infected more than 700 children in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and it has killed at least five children so far. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken steps to track the outbreak, saying it “has received substantially more specimens for enterovirus lab testing than usual this year, due to the large outbreak of EV-D68 and related hospitalizations.” A toddler in Michigan named Madeline Reid was the latest to have died from the disease. She developed complications resulting from contracting EV-D68, including “congestive heart failure and myocarditis.” There is no vaccine for the disease, and so far the numbers of infections and deaths from EV-D68 have far outpaced Ebola, and yet we have heard much less about it in the media in comparison.
Second, the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. may be a bigger threat to American public health over the long term than Ebola. Since 2012, cases of measles in the U.S. have jumped from about 50 per year to nearly 600 this year alone. The CDC reports that “the majority of the people who got measles are unvaccinated.” Although it may not be as fatal as enterovirus or Ebola, measles can lead to encephalitis and death. According to the World Health Organization, “measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.” If the anti-vaccination movement continues to grow, the disease could return in epidemic proportions given that “in 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.” A recent spike in whooping cough (pertussis) in California was also attributed to a drop in vaccination rates. Astonishingly, it appears as though many wealthy, well-educated parents in the U.S. are chief among those choosing not to vaccinate their children despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the shots’ safety and efficiency, and historical evidence of their necessity.
When Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, an M.D., wrote to the CDC in July expressing his fear of disease-ridden Central American migrant children, he claimed that they “lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles” and that “[t]his makes Americans who are not vaccinated—and especially young children and the elderly—particularly susceptible.” But Central American children have higher vaccination rates for measles than American children. As Time’s Editor at Large Jeffrey Kluger remarked, “the immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them.”
That said, Ebola is indeed a serious crisis—in West Africa. More than 4,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have died and thousands more are at risk of death. There are major concerns of a global scale that ought to be discussed but are rarely tackled in the mass media.
First, Ebola is a disease worsened by poverty. As David Quammen, author of “Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus,” asserts, rather than worrying about the spread of the disease in the U.S. (“There’s a far greater chance that we’ll die of influenza in the next year than that we’ll die of Ebola”), he maintains that “the sad circumstances of poverty and the chronic lack of medical care, infrastructure, and supplies” in countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are driving the disease. Even the emergency response to Ebola has been hampered by systemic poverty: Liberian medical workers went on strike to protest a rampant lack of proper equipment, and burial teams in Sierra Leone also struck after not being paid for their work.
Second, Western inaction has worsened the crisis in part because there was no money to be made before the disease reached epidemic proportions. According to this detailed report, “all of the elements for plausibly stopping an Ebola epidemic existed years before the current outbreak: fast diagnostics, post-exposure treatments, and vaccines.” In fact, more than a decade ago, researchers writing in the medical journal Lancet acknowledged that “development of effective vaccines [against Ebola] requires industrial support and this did not seem to be feasible, knowing that there would not be a market for the vaccine.”
Third, austerity measures favored by free market fundamentalists have hampered the fight against Ebola. Here in the U.S., budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health apparently contributed to the delay in biomedical research on Ebola. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been one of a handful of voices in Congress calling attention to the issue and urging a restoration of NIH’s budget. Globally, budget cuts to the WHO have left it woefully understaffed and have greatly impacted the agency’s ability to rapidly respond to the crisis when it emerged in West Africa this year.
Finally, least discussed of all is climate change as a serious factor in the long-term prospect for Ebola and other infectious diseases. In 2008, Scientific American predicted that Ebola was one of a dozen deadly diseases whose impact could worsen as a result of climate change. The WHO in a recent report, concurred in general, saying that “changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.”
Is the current outbreak of Ebola fueled by climate change? Although it is never straightforward to link specific phenomena to a warming climate with certainty, a 2013 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that in Sierra Leone, “The impact of climate change is already felt in the country in seasonal droughts, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, heat waves, floods, and changed rainfall patterns.” As Naomi Klein and other climate justice activists have pointed out, our global capitalist system fuels climate change more than any single institution.
In fact, all four aforementioned and rarely discussed aspects of the Ebola crisis have an overarching theme: Moneyed interests are trumping our public health. Perhaps that is why it is more convenient to invoke the myth of the diseased foreigner and distract us from a far more insidious malady inflicting our society and our world: capitalism.