All This Racist And Xenophobic Media Coverage Of West Africa's Ebola Outbreak Has To Stop

TV news networks and major online publications need to shift their focus away from “OMG, a handsome white doctor is sick with a scary African virus!” immediately.
Publish date:
August 6, 2014
illness, racism, politics, epidemic, ebola

Over the past week or so, I’ve noticed an unsettling pattern emerging in discussions about the West African Ebola outbreak. Major news outlets and people in power have shifted their focus to the perceived future implications for America, yet no American citizens have died of this disease and only two Americans are known to have contracted it. 900 citizens of four West African nations have died from Ebola so far.

Because this crisis is being covered by dedicated and intelligent journalists like Ofeibea Quist-Arcton of NPR, those of us living outside of West Africa have the information necessary for meaningful discussions around this crisis. As it stands, though, the current American perspective on the Ebola outbreak is extremely misguided.

By choosing to focus the public discourse on two affected Americans, we diminish the tragedy of the 900 lives lost. This focus also contributes to racist worldviews that prioritize white lives over black lives.

But before I get into the details of how and why the current Western focus on Ebola is so royally screwed, I want to cover some basicfacts:

  • When the word “Ebola” is used in the United States, it is usually used in reference to Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). When I refer to Ebola I am referring to the disease, not the virus that causes the disease.
  • At first, Ebola presents itself like a bad case of the flu. The first symptoms usually include headaches, fever and muscle pain.
  • As the disease progresses, affected persons often suffer from heavy bleeding. This is where the myth of “liquified organs” originated.
  • Before a person shows symptoms, they are not contagious.
  • In the past, Ebola outbreaks have killed up to 90 percent of those affected. The current outbreak in West Africa has a mortality rate of around 60 percent.
  • Past outbreaks have simply killed everyone in an affected community before the disease had a chance to spread. Improved transportation infrastructure has contributed to the severity of this outbreak.
  • The disease is spread through close, extended contact. This puts healthcare workers at an elevated risk. Ebola is not spread through breathing, like tuberculosis.
  • If an Ebola sufferer dies of their illness, they are still contagious. This is especially problematic in West Africa, where many communities traditionally engage in an intimate mourning ceremony involving close, physical contact with the deceased.
  • Once they are hospitalized, victims can only be isolated and given supportive treatment. Victims often die in the hospital, because there is no cure. This has led to many communities associating healthcare workers with the spread of Ebola. In response, people often hide ill relatives in their homes, contributing to the further spread of disease.

So far, efforts to control the spread of Ebola have been difficult and problematic. British writer and teacher Lola Okolosie tells of her experience upon returning home after recently visiting Nigeria. Her piece in The Guardian describes the challenges presented by her toddler son, who had developed a mild fever while they were abroad. He did not display any other flu-like symptoms upon their return to England, but because they had just been to Nigeria, Okolosie was turned away from a routine appointment with her midwife. For context, only two people in Nigeria were confirmed to have contracted Ebola when Okolosie and her son returned to England.

Okolosie notes that she understands the midwife’s decision to apply caution, but that the general public’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not so forgivable. She writes, “In the UK, the comments left beneath articles on the subject often reflect the prevailing anti-immigration climate – except now they are presented within the framework of science and public health.”

This anti-immigrant mindset being expressed under the guise of public health concerns is nothing new, and it is not unique to the UK. In the United States, Republican congressman Phil Gingrey recently stated that “illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis” are posing a threat to the United States.

Not only is this assertion factually incorrect, it is blatantly xenophobic. Unfortunately, the current humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border means that Representative Gingrey’s ignorant comment has fallen upon a similarly xenophobic domestic audience. He has only been called out publicly by liberal-learning news sites like Daily Kos and The Daily Beast. To see just how little attention is being paid to his stupidity, take a look at the search results from when I Googled the congressman on August 5:

When I searched Google News for “Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever” on August 4, I was presented with this selection of not-so-relevant stories:

There’s so much to say about this screenshot. First of all, five out of the seven faces in the headlines’ thumbnails are white faces. This is clearly not a representative portrait of the population suffering from Ebola. It might seem insignificant to point out that a search engine aggregates stories in this way, but it has a big impact on how people perceive this crisis. And because this is a collection of headlines based upon a major search engine’s algorithms, it is a direct representation of the much larger national discussion of Ebola.

If I didn’t know anything about Ebola and then scanned these search results, I would think that this is a disease that has the potential to impact my personal health and well-being. Six of the seven headlines in this image explicitly mention the United States, even though Americans have not and will not be significantly impacted by the virus. White Americans do not need to be at risk for the Ebola outbreak to be a crisis worthy of the world’s attention. Hundreds of citizens of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are dead, and there is no quick fix in sight.

Let me repeat: White Americans do not need to be the center of attention in every single discussion of the current Ebola outbreak.

Of course, not all media outlets are covering this public health crisis in a xenophobic and racist manner. The phenomenon I’m referring to is occurring in aggregate, when we look at the overall trends in media coverage and online discussions. I mentioned Ofeibea Quist-Arcton earlier, and I highly recommend listening to her reporting on the current situation in Sierra Leone. Quist-Arcton touches on issues of culture and focuses her reporting on the people who are directly affected by this crisis.

TV news networks and major online publications need to shift their focus away from “OMG, a handsome white doctor is sick with a scary African virus!” immediately. This kind of coverage is both xenophobic and racist. Quick and infrequent updates on the condition of the two (two!) affected Americans will provide more than enough attention to their cases. 900 people, all of whom are living in West Africa, have already died from this vicious disease for which there is no vaccine or guaranteed cure.

Future coverage and discussion should focus on how communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are dealing with this outbreak, and the challenges of bringing foreign medical workers into communities that don’t want them there. NPR has been doing a fairly good job of focusing on the parts of this story that actually matter, and Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s recent coverage sets a fantastic example for others to follow.

I’m sure some readers are thinking, “Well, American/Canadian/British news companies are just approaching this story from an angle that their audience will relate to. They have to sell papers/get pageviews/attract viewers!” I wholeheartedly disagree with this perspective. Endless coverage of Dr. Kent Brantly’s ambulance ride to Emory University isn’t compelling. It’s boring, it’s pointless, it’s racist, and it’s lazy.

For once, let’s shift our discussions of international events away from white Americans. We can do better than this.