How xenophobia is driving the Ebola narrative

If illness is a metaphor, what does Ebola mean?

A recent Newsweek cover story showed a photograph of a gorilla accompanied by an inaccurate headline that contaminated bushmeat could bring Ebola to the US. Four weeks later on Fox News, Keith Albow, a member of the network’s Medical A-team, accused President Obama of failing to protect us because “His affiliations are with Africa…not us. He’s their leader.”

And these were just two recent, explicit examples of what US Ebola coverage has become. In the same way that images of police storming Ferguson in riot gear, and narratives that criminalized Michael Brown (and young black men in general) exposed and shaped the distrust between that state and its citizens, the images of “hellish hospitals” and hazmat suits, are snowballing into Ebola symbolizing a chaotic, primitive Africa in US coverage.

“I’ve very disturbed by how much xenophobia is in all of this,” says Dr. Robert Fullilove, the associate dean of community and minority health at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, who has been following the media closely. “Most Americans deal with Africa as though it’s this one tiny place. It’s a continent 2.5 times the size of the US, yet there’s no distinction made between folks who are in South Africa and folks who are francophone Africa. It’s this notion that it’s all one big dark place where everybody looks the same, where everybody is the same, where everybody is, more than anything else, not American.”

Ebola’s transformation from mere pathology to a symbol of fear of “the other” is not unprecedented. Thirty-four years ago, Susan Sontag wrote about how we shape illness through language: how the way we talked about AIDS stigmatized gays and intravenous drug users, becoming a flashpoint for homophobia and the sense that Africa was the source of ignorance and war; how cancer became a metaphor for repression, an affliction of the “cancerous personality.” More recently, the media hysteria around Mexican Swine Flu and the Avian Flu “pandemics,” which came replete with photos of faceless crowds in Asia, and drug-cartel-style images, sparked anti-immigrant sentiment and a debate about how we racialize disease.

Fullilove says that, in the case of Ebola, he’s particularly upset by photos of African villages—some of which, he says, were taken before the outbreak occurred—that “emphasize how primitive, how ostensibly crude, and how different the people you see in these images are from the average American. What I’m seeing is an effort to, if anything, exaggerate the exotic. The foreign sense we attach to images of Africa is a way to magnify the ‘us and them’ differences that human beings are prone to make.” Other critics have noted how this dynamic has played out in images of West African hospitals: Patients, many of them children, are pictured dying and bleeding on the floor, a stark contrast from recent photographs of American patients, whose suffering have been obscured. While these upsetting images were arguably meant to mobilize the international community, they may have contributed, too, to its inertia by underlining a false sense of security—the implication was that this sort of disease and chaos could never happen here.

And then, of course, it did. Twitter swirled with conspiracy theories, from whispers of a plot to control population to wondering if Obama had brought Ebola to the US to pay for slavery, or failed to stop it out of a sense of liberal guilt. On the front page of October 17 New York Times, a picture of a protester holding a sign that read “Stop the Flights!” appeared alongside a story about a US doctor offering “a healing hand in Liberia.” A photo of the doctor, described by a caption as “putting on his plastic and rubber armor,” invoked a parallel narrative: the symbol of the white savior, an American soldier heading off to fight a foreign war. Just as long as the foreigners don’t come here.

Dr. Dennis Andrulis, a senior research scientist at the Texas Health Institute and an associate professor at University of Texas School of Public Health, described these narratives, and the events on the ground that mirrored them, as “threat-based responses.” He added: “The ‘other’ is seen as a threat to me, so I’m going to look at ways to take that threat off the table, either by disallowing people visiting, or staying away from people of other cultures, or casting suspicion upon the motivation or willingness of certain folks to participate.”

Andrius, who has studied how language, culture, and the legacy of discrimination inform how public health emergencies are perceived, and created a toolkit for how to respond going forward, compares these threat-based narratives to what happened in the wake of September 11. “A lot of the attention turned to Arab Muslim communities and said, ‘Well, it’s your fault.’ It was a knee-jerk, alarmist response that was fed by the media in a lot of ways,” Andrulis says, adding that the fallout of such responses, which are often attempts to find meaning and explain what is happening, is a legacy of distrust that sets up “immediate barriers.”

These barriers have larger implications for public health and civic life. “The issues of distrust that are coming out through Ferguson, I mean, these are not unrelated concerns,” Andrulis says. “If messages are going out about carrying forth information, education, and you don’t trust the source you turn off, you don’t even listen to it. Are you out to help me or are you out to hurt me? For immigrant populations, are you out to help me or report me?”

By last Friday, Melissa Harris-Perry reported that as many as 60 Republican lawmakers were calling for commercial flight bans and quarantines, and, along with The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, that Liberian communities were beginning to feel the effects of stigmatization. As the Ebola story morphed and chattered through a fractured media landscape over the weekend, the object of attention became the fear itself, with stories about conspiracy theories, and Ebola hysteria were proliferating across the Web. In a moment that might be described as post-racial wishful thinking, or maybe obfuscation, Frank Bruni wrote an article describing Ebola as “Obama’s Presidency in a petri dish,” without once mentioning race, or its role in what he calls, “The Virus of Cynicism.”

In this climate of fear, Fullilove found himself worrying about basic human rights, “the ability for people to travel, ability of people to move freely about,” and if the stigma of Ebola could do more damage than the virus itself. “I worry about what we’ll do out of panic, not out of a sense of science, not out of the principles of public health. It could have long-range consequences from which it could be very difficult to recover.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.