10/20/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

The Media Covering Ebola: Fear Tactics That Play on Racial, Economic Divides


Behind the fear-mongering and scare tactics that have conflated all of today's hot news issues into some sort of dystopic conservative nightmare -- Ebola on the backs of ISIS crossing into the U.S. through the porous Mexican border -- lie very palpable undertones of colonialist attitudes towards racism and cultural elitism. In no vein of reporting has this become clearer than through the popular media's handling of the current Ebola epidemic.

Sure, FOX news gets away with blatant racism and nobody bats an eye because it's just part of their act, but they are not alone in their uncompassionate reporting on the thousands of people currently suffering from Ebola. The dehumanization which casts West Africans not as people but as potential hosts of a terrible, foreign virus, can be seen on almost any media outlet with precious few exceptions (notably, Democracy Now!, Fareed Zakaria's segment on CNN, and a few others).

While it may be hard to place this disregard entirely at the feet of racism as we traditionally see it, it might be better to understand it as a manifestation of the North-South divide, an academic concept that roughly delineates the economic disparities between the countries of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. To put this another way, the developed, industrialized North assumes a relatively normalized stance that the under-developed, global South is both a misunderstood, backwards place to be kept at a safe distance and a latent threat due to its political instability, poverty and foreignness. Nowhere in this fearful reading of uneven economic development is there any recognition of human rights or global responsibility, just an antagonistic positing of a disease ridden West Africa as an existential threat to the great Ivory Tower of the United States.

We speculate endlessly over the fictionalized and sensationalized prospects of an epidemic that will never become a legitimate threat within the US, but no one finds the time to even mention the horror that must face the individuals, the families, the health care workers and the citizens of an impoverished country who are slowly watching this unspeakably devastating disease spread within their midst. For the moment, we are too busy asking ourselves, "What does this Ebola outbreak mean for me and my life?" instead of the questions we should be asking, such as "How can we as a global community best act to stop this terrible disease everywhere?"

So whether anchors are talking about travel bans for everyone and anyone coming from West Africa, or discussing the domestic "Ebola epidemic" in regards to the few cases we've had in the U.S., it is important to realize that it is all just well-disguised racism and Western exceptionalism being paraded around under the banner of "national security". There is perhaps a blurry line between what is considered the national interest of protecting our country and citizens and what is the construction of higher walls to even further insulate ourselves from parts of the world we do not understand. This is, of course, nothing new; the same rhetorical tricks are used when talking about most major issues such as immigration, gay marriage, radical Islam, terrorism, etc.

Would we condemn thousands more people in Guinea, Sierra Leon, and Liberia to death for the sake of our own vaguely-threatened safety? Make no mistake, by isolating West Africa from the world because of our own insecurities, misunderstandings, and trumped-up fear, we will be doing just that.

This is exactly how racism and other forms of discrimination work: they play on our fears and misunderstandings and amplify them to the Nth degree. As a result, terrible and inhumane actions are legitimized and permitted. Is there a genuine health concern over Ebola? Absolutely -- it is a horrendous and virulent disease. But, like many other diseases across the developing world, it is a social and economic problem as much as it is an epidemiological one. By playing on this pseudo-racist rhetoric that isolates, demonizes, and excludes the people most vulnerable to the spread of Ebola in West Africa, we only work to further ensure the long and miserable trajectory of this most recent epidemic.