The Black Plague

While Americans remain far safer from Ebola than you’d know from watching cable news, the epidemic still presents a real crisis in the three West African countries hardest hit, with the World Health Organization reporting almost 10,000 confirmed cases and at least 4,877 deaths, but probably a lot more:

The WHO has said real numbers of cases are believed to be much higher than reported: by a factor of 1.5 in Guinea, 2 in Sierra Leone and 2.5 in Liberia, while the death rate is thought to be about 70 percent of all cases. That would suggest a toll of almost 15,000. Liberia has been worst hit, with 4,665 recorded cases and 2,705 deaths, followed by Sierra Leone with 3,706 cases and 1,259 deaths. Guinea, where the outbreak originated, has had 1,540 cases and 904 deaths.

But how do the virus’s African origins affect the way we perceive it? For one thing, it leads to geographically ignorant nonsense such as this and, according to Lola Adesioye, it also inspires the media to stereotype the continent and its people:

[T]he media’s handling of the virus, its origins, and its propagation (which some in the media have suggested comes from people eating wildlife, even though this has not been scientifically proven) has reverted to an age-old reliance on lazy stereotypes, generalizations, and misleading information that once again disseminate a view of the African continent’s 1 billion people as wild-animal-eating, jungle-roaming, primitive, disease-carrying “others.”

Let’s take for example articles such as one that featured recently in the Washington Post, the headline of which was “Why West Africans keep hunting and eating bush meat despite Ebola concerns.” The reality is that not only do many West Africans not eat bush meat—defined as terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians harvested for food—but that many Africans in general—whether from south, east, north or west—do not eat bush meat.

Philip Alcabes also ruminates on the role of race and “otherness” in the Ebola panic. In his conclusion, he laments “that the solipsism of self-protection makes it harder for us to see the crisis that Ebola really constitutes”:

The only reasonable path to prevent illness and death in America is to prevent further illness and death in western Africa. We can’t serve both our needs and those of the suffering countries when our only aim is to close our own borders, schools, or air lanes. And this self-referential panic, this intense attention by Americans to what is not a real threat to America and yet seems to embody so many of the unspoken fears that we harbor about ourselves—about race, our place in the world, health care, control, about what the sociologist Anthony Giddens called the unprecedented promise and unfathomable risks of “the double edge of modernity”—is going to make it impossible for us to devote our resources and our intellect to stopping the advance of Ebola.