Ebola doesn’t discriminate; why should we?

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Ebola is scary. In the past weeks, we have been repeatedly informed that it is a deadly disease that has killed, and continues to kill people on a worrying scale. What ought to be challenged, however, is the coverage by some news agencies of the outbreak.

It has been compared by some to the racist presentation of AIDS; the epidemic in the 1980s saw in a period of intense public anxiety towards a disease that had, previously, been simply a distant problem in a distant country. Ebola has been the foremost international concern in the minds of many for months now, with fairly brief coverage of a lethal outbreak in some faraway country- a safe distance from the West. Recently, however, he Telegraph published an article entitled “Ebola fears on the cocktail party circuit”, with a picture showing two white people ‘air kissing’, demonstrating, quite clearly, where media priorities lie.

Some American news reporters have employed a rhetoric that likens the threat of Ebola to an invasion from an enemy nation. “Ebola has landed on American soil”, the headlines scream; the outrage is palpable. In front of the White House, there have been protests by demonstrators in bio-hazard suits carrying pickets declaring ‘STOP THE FLIGHTS’.  When a disease is presented by the mainstream media showing almost exclusively black victims, hysteria amongst the white West seems to ensue. It has become such a widespread topic that there is even a range of Halloween costumes that have recently become available.

So why this disparity in the treatment of the disease by the media? Why is the explosion of Ebola in the public mind treated as a way to make a quick profit and a joke by some, whilst also being lauded as the end of days? In Sierra Leone, Ebola is now killing 20 people per day, but in the West, it would seem that mocking is the appropriate reaction- that is, of course, until it finally landed on our own turf.

Constantly there are calls for more to be done. Ebola has spread most quickly in areas where people live in close proximity, as it is spread by person to person contact, and while it may not discriminate by race or nationality as to whom it infects. the coverage by the media certainly does.

In Sierra Leone, Ebola is now killing 20 people per day, but in the West, it would seem that mocking is the appropriate reaction- that is, of course, until it finally landed on our own turf.

As soon as a white Westerner is infected, the news seize it. By following these minority of cases closely, the media are able to build up a picture of a more immediate threat to Western nations. There have been officially only three cases of Ebola infection within the US- whilst the disease is by no means a source of competition, with the death toll at approximately 12,000 in Africa, the media favouritism seems almost laughably obvious. In fact, many people choose to ignore the suffering of poverty stricken countries in Africa most of the year round. For the privileged white West, we can turn off the television when a charity advert comes on,  and escape the unspeakable starvation and disease depicted; something which, for millions of people, is a reality that is preordained and unavoidable.

However, when a problem that affects black people in developing countries begins to threaten white people in Western countries, suddenly everyone wants to know more. Stories about disease are incredibly emotive and visceral, with daily updates of the victims and their deteriorating health.

Yet there are subtle and some not-so-subtle suggestions of blame within the stories. Thomas Duncan, a black Westerner, was initially turned away from a US hospital when complaining of symptoms. Whilst it may not be the immediate assumption that someone outside West Africa has Ebola, critics argue that a white person with insurance would have received better treatment- however, Duncan, who tragically died from the infection, faced criminal charges for suspicion of ‘intentionally exposing the public’ to Ebola.

Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Texas and was the first person to die of the disease in the USA.
Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Texas and was the first person to die of the disease in the USA.

On the other hand, white healthcare workers who had become infected were flown back to Western nations for treatment. Some treated them as heroes, whilst others questioned the reasoning behind bringing an infected person to a non-infected country- surely this should also be deemed as ‘intentionally exposing the public’. When a problem is isolated to a distant and foreign community, most people are more willing to ignore it, but things become very different when the issue seems closer to home.

The reality is that treating Ebola as a hot button race issue is not as simple as saying that the coverage has been racist. There is, however, a deep distrust by some of a disease that springs up in the poorest black communities. This carries with it a wealth of rhetoric that plays on the fears of those who turn a blind eye to global suffering, and only speak up when that suffering seems as if it may become their own.

Samuel Lewis 

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