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Race and Beyond: U.S. Ebola Hysteria Is the Wrong Response to the Epidemic

Ebola hospital

SOURCE: AP/LM Otero

A man walks up the stairway leading to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, September 30, 2014.

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The African continent’s Ebola epidemic is producing crazed hysteria across the United States.

In scenes reminiscent of the fear mongering and scapegoating experienced by gay men during the early years of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, Americans today are overreacting with irrational fear and public ostracism of Africans. Examples abound:

  • Navarro College—a two-year college in Corsicana, Texas, about 60 miles outside of Dallas—denied admission to several Nigerian applicants because of the Ebola outbreak in their home country. An October 2 letter signed by Elizabeth A. Pillans, the college’s director of international programs, reads, “Unfortunately, Navarro College is not accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases.” At the time the letters were sent, Nigeria hadn’t reported a case of Ebola in more than 21 days, and the World Health Organization has since declared Africa’s largest country to be Ebola free.
  • A sick passenger on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Chicago was ordered to remain in the plane’s bathroom to keep her isolated from other passengers. Martha Selby, a University of Texas professor, told the Houston Chronicle that the passenger “was making her way to the bathroom and vomited in the aisle. The flight attendants, I think, overreacted completely. It was crazy.” American Airlines told the newspaper that the passenger, who didn’t have Ebola, wanted to sit in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight, and the crew complied with her wishes.
  • In Nazareth, Pennsylvania, players on the Northampton high school soccer team taunted a West African player on the opposing Nazareth-area high school team with chants of “Ebola.” The next day, both the head coach and the assistant coach of the Northampton soccer team resigned.
  • Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications disinvited Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille last week from participating in workshops with its journalism students because the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer had spent the previous month documenting the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.

I could go on, but you get the point. And if not, Jack Pickell and Chelsea Rice of Boston.com are making something of a journalistic career out of tracking the human folly of Americans scared witless over Ebola.

Such outrageous behavior is uncalled for and totally unnecessary. While the virus is killing people by the thousands across Africa, the danger in the United States is relatively nonexistent. More than 8,900 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March, according to the World Health Organization, making this the biggest outbreak on record. More than 4,400 people have died.

However, in the United States—as of Friday—only eight Americans are confirmed to have had the virus. One U.S. citizen contracted the virus while in Liberia and died overseas, never returning to the United States.

Yet too many Americans are reacting to the epidemic in Africa not with concern for the tragic fate of the afflicted countries’ citizens but instead with unfounded fear of what is unlikely to happen in the United States. It’s as if all the knowledge we’ve gained and history we’ve experienced with AIDS over the past three or four decades has taught us nothing about how to respond to viral pathogens.

So how should Americans react?

Above all, get the facts. As Matthew Herper, a medical and science writer for Forbes, noted in a recent blog post, the chance of an American contracting the virus on U.S. soil is close to zero if he or she is not a health care worker treating an Ebola patient. “Your risk of catching Ebola is still far less than your risk of dying from the flu, which killed 53,667 Americans in 2010,” Herper wrote.

Once armed with knowledge, we are better able to resist the human urge to fear the unknown. For example, an informed citizen recognizes that narrow-minded political calls for stopping flights between the United States and West Africa belie the facts. You can’t get Ebola from simply being on a plane or sharing the same room with someone who has the virus. What’s more, there are few direct flights between the United States and West Africa, as most are connecting passages through European cities. International air travel would grind to a halt in a futile effort to prevent people from the stricken nations from entering the United States.

Pandering to ignorance—such as the decision by officials at Syracuse University and other prominent U.S. journalism schools to cancel speaking engagements of journalists with firsthand reports that would help inform an alarmed public about the epidemic—is unfortunate, regrettable, and wrong.

No matter where you live on the planet, we are increasingly interconnected through 21st century modes of communication, technology, and transportation. What happens in a rural African village can not only affect the way a person in the inner city of a U.S. metropolis interacts within her or his own community but also how we as a nation relate to the rest of the world. When a life-and-death calamity strikes a part of our human family anywhere in the world, Americans cannot afford to become ignorant isolationists. Rather, we should rise to our better selves as caring, informed, and humanitarian leaders in a global society.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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