A Plague Called ‘Fearbola’

Togba Porte is not a man who is easily excited. He runs a small funeral home on Staten Island, probably the least urban borough of New York. Porte originally comes from Liberia; now he lives in “Little Liberia,” as the side streets off of Targee Street have come to be called. However, a few weeks ago, his peace and quiet disappeared.

Because of Ebola, he worries about his friends and relatives in Liberia, but that isn’t all: Fear is also developing for him here in the U.S. With others, Porte has founded an “Ebola crisis committee.” “There are children here who attack each other with: ‘You have Ebola,’” he explains.

Twelve people came to the Moravian Church on Monday evening for the “crisis committee” meeting. Pastor Wellesley Ferguson lent his group meeting room to be utilized for their purposes. “Many black people are suddenly being treated differently — because of this, it is important that everyone do something collectively against it,” he says.

Within the group, everyone can recount stories of discrimination and panic: about people who no longer want to sit next to black people on the subway, about employees whose bosses discouraged them from traveling to Little Liberia. The group wants to start a social media campaign and collaborate with the local college to find out what can be done against the fear and ignorance. “It isn’t only about Liberians,” says Wendy de Shong-Neuhalfen. “Everything that’s African is being thrown into one pot. Many people also do not differentiate between the various countries of Africa at all. There is racism at play, but also ignorance.”

“Fearbola” Does Not Heed Reason

Regional television has revealed a mass furor over schools, especially in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. “I do not want to have Ebola and I do not want my child to get Ebola,” said one mother to a reporter. The fact that Zambia is far away from the countries with Ebola cases does not convince the parents. Principal Lee Wannik, who recently traveled to Zambia, now waits at home for the duration of the three-week incubation period to pass, even though Ebola has not yet appeared in Zambia — nor in Mississippi. In Hazlehurst, the population is poorer and less educated, which may be to blame, speculates one reporter on local television.

In Maple Shade, New Jersey, most people are not poor. The average household income is around $50,000; the percentage of population under the poverty line is below the national average. But even here two children are no longer able to go to school because they are from Rwanda. Similarly, there has not been a single case of Ebola reported in that country as of now. Rwanda is as far away from most of the areas affected by Ebola as New York is from San Francisco.

Taking Temperature Several Times Daily

Nevertheless, school leaders have announced their desire to have the children’s temperature checked several times daily for 21 days. The school also informed the parents that it was expecting new students from the African country; consequently, some of the parents put so much pressure on the school that the children had to remain at home.

The school leadership has refused to clarify their plan one-on-one — the secretary refers to the homepage on the telephone, where it states that the parents have actually kept the children at home longer than “necessary.” The affected families themselves also refuse to speak with journalists.

Rwanda has reacted and announced that it will check all travelers arriving from the U.S. at the airport. After all, in contrast to Rwanda, there have already been some infections and one death due to Ebola in the U.S.. However, the country withdrew this measure after four days and spread apologies over Twitter. The health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, “acted first and then thought,” wrote President Paul Kagame. How this about-face came to pass is unknown.

Yet victims of the Ebola hysteria can also be people who have never been out of the country. For one teacher from Strong, Maine, it became a crisis due to the fact that she had attended a conference in Dallas, the Texan city where the first Ebola patient in the U.S. died and infected two nurses.

The teacher had no contact at all with the infected patient or the affected hospital; nevertheless, she found herself under pressure from parents to take three weeks forced vacation. Better safe than sorry goes the logic. The school itself declared that there is indeed no reason to assume that the teacher has been infected with Ebola, but one takes the worries of parents seriously. The teacher can only hope that the hysteria dies down as she continues to show no Ebola symptoms after three weeks.

Even Education Does Not Prevent Panic

Many commentators attribute the Ebola panic to a combination of xenophobia and racism. The epidemic is equated with the “other,” in this case the “black man,” and Africans are contrasted with “healthy” Westerners; a theory with some merit, but it does not explain everything. In the case of the principal from Mississippi, the frightened parents were predominantly black.

Others believe that the hysteria is the consequence of a lack of education. Michel du Cille is a photojournalist for The Washington Post, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes, and has had to experience firsthand how this explanation only partially suffices. In September he was in Liberia to report on the Ebola epidemic. He returned home healthy and always protected himself so as to raise no doubts about his health.

In the middle of October, after the possible Ebola incubation period, he wanted to report to the students at Syracuse University in New York about his experiences. However, the university cancelled his talk. The reason: Many students were worried about Ebola.

No Admission Due to Ebola

The same thing happened to Wade C.L. Williams, a prize-winning Liberian journalist, who was supposed to hold a lecture at the University of Georgia. “I received a call from the vice dean that the parents were worried, and they take that seriously. I was furious. I had planned this lecture for two months,” says Williams. “I am healthy, my children and my husband are healthy. It’s as if people do not want to acknowledge that one must have direct bodily contact with an infected person to catch Ebola.”

Additionally, you do not have to have been in Liberia in order to become a victim of “Fearbola.” Navarro College in Texas sent a rejection letter to an applicant from Nigeria with the suggestion they were not accepting students at the moment from countries where there are confirmed Ebola cases. Nigeria is perceived, however, as exemplary in the struggle against the epidemic and has now been declared Ebola-free.

A Twitter user ironically asked whether Americans should even be admitted to universities, as there have been Ebola cases in the U.S. as well. The college apologized half-heartedly – they claimed the focus is presently being put on international applicants, likewise if they are from China and Indonesia, as stated in a press release.

Fear as a Political Weapon

In connection with the upcoming election on Nov. 4, “Fearbola” has also become a political topic. Senators are now calling for a prohibition of flights landing from affected countries, and Republican Representative Joe Wilson is even indulging in fantasies of Hamas terrorists using Ebola as a biological weapon — for him, one more reason to finally close the border with Mexico.

Using fear allows politics to thrive. A failure is ascribed to the “governing bodies,” which can only be corrected by isolation and a “strong hand.” Even though a majority of Americans have declared in polls that they are not afraid of infection by the Ebola virus, there are many who have an interest in fomenting this fear.

This does not only have negative consequences for the afflicted people in the U.S. The panic caused by the virus could do more to hurt the actual victims in West Africa, specifically by discouraging those who are trying to help on the ground in a climate of fear.

Hostility at the Airport

Nurse Kaci Hickox, for example, has recounted that officials at the airport in Newark, New Jersey hostilely approached her during her return from service in Sierra Leone. Such experiences could discourage others from going to West Africa, Hickox fears.

“When is the correct moment to for someone to be tested for Ebola?” ask excited CNN commentators on the large screen in the waiting hall for the ferry to Staten Island. “The television with its power to cause panic runs 24 hours a day in many households,” complains one participant at the crisis meeting on the island.

As Togba Porte’s group meets here in the church, it is reported that two children in the Bronx have been attacked — by 15 youths, who allegedly called: “You have Ebola!” The parents of both boys come from Senegal. The brothers were so badly injured that they had to go to the hospital. “It begins,” says one woman in front of the church. A few nodded silently: no one can disagree with her.

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