Jumoke Balogun reports on how the Ebola crisis in West Africa is triggering a new wave of xenophobia in USA.
Last week, a family friend left his home in Kansas City, Missouri en route to Lagos, Nigeria to fulfil a promise made to his dying father who wanted all of his children together for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
As honourable as I thought the gesture, and although I completely understood that his chance of getting Ebola was smaller than small, I still thought the decision careless.
It didn’t matter that he was traveling to Nigeria, a country so successful in its campaign to contain the virus that the US government sent a team of scientists to learn from its public health officials. I thought his decision careless because I didn’t think that he fully understood the politicisation of his black immigrant body. This was not a time to be traveling to West Africa; this was a time to lay low.
I didn’t even want to talk about Ebola, let alone book flights to Nigeria. Until this week, I was actually avoiding coverage of the outbreak in West Africa because whether it be Ferguson or Freetown, Monrovia or Staten Island, the town market or a supermarket, my brain couldn’t handle seeing another photo of a dead black person who didn’t have to die.
I was also avoiding news coverage because I understood from the beginning of the outbreak that should Ebola reach America, immigrant communities would be scapegoated and demonised. I knew that politicians and pundits alike would respond to Ebola with xenophobia, the intense and irrational fear and hatred of people from other countries.
I was right.
After news broke that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian immigrant who has now lost his life to the disease, was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, conservatives were quick to demonise him.
One pundit hypothesised that Duncan somehow knew that he was going to be diagnosed with Ebola once he got to America, “he didn’t hop onto a plane… without knowing that he would likely come down with this… he wanted treatment in the United States.” Never mind the fact that Duncan could not have known he would get the disease since he didn’t show symptoms of Ebola until four days after he arrived from Liberia. I should also note that Duncan was refused help when he initially went to the emergency room because hospital staff saw him as “a poor Black man who had a very deep accent.” Another pundit reasoned that the U.S. should never have even issued a visa to Duncan because “this guy was a visa overstay waiting to happen.” And another added that to shield the country from another Ebola diagnosis, “President Obama should order an immigration quarantine.” A statement that is both nonsensical and terrifying.
It is easy to just shake one’s head and ignore the lunacy spewing from the mouth of xenophobes, and it’s not like this is a new phenomenon. Historically, xenophobes have used public health and fearmongering to scapegoat immigrants. During the flu epidemic of 1918 for example, a doctor in Denver was frustrated with “foreign elements who gave much trouble as they pay no attention to the rules or orders.” Ninety years later at the height of the swine flu epidemic in 2009, a radio host warned that America’s emergency rooms had become “condos for Mexicans.”
As appalling as these statements are, what is truly frightening is that xenophobic attitudes permeate public discourse and public policy. Simply, by allowing racist fearmongers to use public health as a shield to promote their xenophobic agenda, we give way to policies that allows for dehumanisation of immigrant communities and offer consent for those who wish to violently express their hate. We see this play out in many countries around the world.
The part of my brain that stored the images of unarmed dead black bodies from this summer also stores a video of black immigrants at Lampedusa, a small Italian island where until very recently, African asylum seekers were stripped naked and hosed down to rid them of “skin diseases;” a cringe-inducing scarred back of a beaten Sudanese immigrant in Greece; and an image of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees imprisoned in a desolate open detention center where the Israeli government currently keeps what one member of the Knesset calls “the cancers in our body.”
This is the end goal for xenophobes. To have immigrants outcasted, humiliated, shamed, and quarantined. Promulgating that immigrants are public health risk provides the easiest route for them to reach to their goal.
For example, in the early 1990s, the US government detained tens of thousands of Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay. It was no coincidence that at the time, the official US government policy was that being Haitian was a risk factor for HIV/AIDS, a public health policy that had no scientific basis whatsoever.
With the Ebola outbreak, those who seek to hinder the passage of commonsense immigration reform are exploiting the virus to bolster their hateful argument and further dehumanise and ostracise the Latino community, the largest immigrant contingency in America.
In a much publicised letter to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey shockingly fabricates that the young refugees fleeing violence in Central America carry “deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis.”
A baseless lie that is easily debunked due to the fact that:
- Many of the children coming from these countries carried their vaccinations cards with them.
- According to the CDC, the last reported case of measles in the United States was August 29, 2014. The last reported case in Guatemala or Honduras? 1990.
- According to UNICEF, most of Latin America have comparable vaccination rates or have vaccination rates that are higher than the US. In 2012 for example, UNICEF reported that Mexico vaccinated 99 percent of its children (universal healthcare!) and in that same year, the United States vaccinated 92% of its children.
- According to the CDC, there has never been a known case of Ebola in Latin America. EVER.
I can break down every hateful quote with facts, and counter every racist argument with bullet point after bullet point, but veracity is not of top concern for the xenophobe. They seek to dehumanise and ostracise those in our society that are our most vulnerable. Public health is just a cover that they believe will somehow absolve them from being called out for the hateful racist bigots they are.
This post originally appeared on Compare Afrique.
Jumoke Balogun is the co-founder of compareafrique.com. She’s decided not to lay low.