“Othering” and the Ebola Crisis
Last year, my mother, sister, and I came to a decision: Summer 2014 would be the year that we board a flight that would eventually land us in Monrovia, Liberia. It would have been my and my sister’s first trip to any African nation. It would have been the long-awaited return of my mom to her country of birth, the city where she was raised.
My grandfather–a Nigerian who had long since been a naturalized citizen of Liberia, that nation which was once a colony of the United States until 1847–wanted his daughter to come to America to further her education. My mom left for California from Robertsfield airport in 1976. What she wouldn't have known, couldn't have known then, was that it would be the last time her feet would touch the earth of the sweltering, tropical country. Not many years after her departure, Samuel Doe led an overthrow of the government, assassinating the president and executing members of his cabinet.
The many years of instability in my mother’s patria–in addition to the 1980 coup that led to Doe “winning” the presidential election five years later, there were back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003–made it so that she never got the opportunity to return. My father, on the other hand, did make several returns, most recently three years ago.
We talked about traveling for a number of years, hindered in large part by the high cost of airline tickets. By 2013 it was decided–we would visit in June or July of 2014. By then my younger sister would be a high school graduate and it would be a great vacation before she started her freshman year of college. She and I would get to meet for the first time our maternal grandmother, a woman who has refused to travel to the United States even when the opportunity presented itself. (Years prior two of her sisters left Liberia to stay with family in New Jersey and both women had passed away from cancer within years of each other. According to my grandmother, this land was simply not the place for her.) For my mother, this trip would have been an overdue reunion with her own mother.
By Spring of this year, an Ebola outbreak in several West African nations raged with no end in sight. As each month passed, the numbers of afflicted and dead grew, and for those with immediate ties to the region, concern ballooned on par. What was lacking, however, was interest by those in the United States. Patrick Sawyer, a naturalized American from Liberia, contracted the virus in Liberia in July only to die two weeks later in Lagos, Nigeria. Here we had the first American death from Ebola, and it passed without much word from news outlets, certainly not on the level of talk circulating when Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the virus not more than a week after Patrick Sawyer’s death.
Upon Dr. Brantly’s arrival along with missionary Nancy Writebol’s to medical facilities in the United States (and their subsequent recoveries), all eyes finally turned to the outbreak. And only a month after their recoveries, we saw two more contractions of the virus, one of which was initially misdiagnosed and then finally correctly diagnosed in Dallas, Texas. The problems, however, with looking now to what this virus means are manifold. Because Ebola touched down, so to speak, in the United States, hysteria and fear reached apocalyptic levels. One man died in Texas from the virus, and the two nurses who were part of the team caring for him battled through the illness and became healthy again. Three people have or had Ebola on U.S. soil, and it has given a number of folks carte blanche to flex their xenophobia muscles.
Though I first and foremost describe myself as a Black woman, I am second generation, one whose feet are firmly planted in two worlds: America and West Africa. More specifically, I am Liberian-Nigerian-American. Yes, two of the four countries that have been dealing with this outbreak (though Nigeria officially became Ebola-free on October 20) are two of the countries where my family comes from. After Thomas Eric Duncan’s initial diagnosis, the hysteria reached a fevered pitch. Jokes about zombie apocalypses, discussions about instituting travel bans, talk about “bushmeat” (though we’re perfectly content with calling deer, rabbit, snake, and alligator, animals consumed in various regions of this country, “wild game”) prevailed on social media and in person. People who I usually consider reasonable and intelligent resorted to using pronouns when talking about Africans. Or they lumped Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria into a catch-all nomenclature: Ebola countries. We were all good, everything was copacetic, until someone from one of those “Ebola countries” came here.
The two incidents of recent travelers from Nigeria going to local hospitals–Howard University Hospital and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital–turned out to be malaria cases. Yet before that was disclosed, my Facebook news feed was a mess of statuses about the zombie apocalypse in D.C. and how “Oh my goodness! Ebola might be in D.C.!!!” Twenty-four hours later when the Washington Post published on their site the update that the patients exhibiting Ebola-like symptoms actually had malaria, my news feed was (oddly?) devoid of follow up. Additionally, Navarro College in Texas rejected two applicants because they are from Nigeria. The students do not have Ebola, but the country from where they come had cases of the virus. Two young Senegalese students in the Bronx were assaulted and taunted with shouts of “Ebola!” And in a New Jersey suburb, two recently arrived students from Rwanda were made to stay home when the school nurse informed the school staff that the school would take the temperature of the children three times a day for a 21-day period “in the interest of being overly cautious.”
How do we justify this kind of behavior? This complete lack of sympathy? Instead people will say with a straight face, “Well, I just don’t want it here.” What is the implication of such a statement? Do Guineans want it? Sierra Leoneans? Nigerians? Liberians?
The resulting stigmatization has inspired a number of Liberians to declare “I am a Liberian, not a virus.”
The video states, “We didn’t bring this disease upon ourselves. Stop the stigmatization!”