I flew to South Africa last week for my first adventure on the continent. It was a great trip -- I saw lions, learned about the horrors of apartheid and ate strange, delicious food -- but the one question I was asked before I left and after I came back had nothing to do with wildlife or safaris, but everything to do with our current news cycle. Any guesses?
"Isn't that where Ebola is?"
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Without fail, my mom, my grandparents, my friends and my roommate all asked me if I was worried about the disease that's inspired stateside hysteria and unnecessary quarantines. My 15-year-old brother went so far as to swear off the entire continent... forever, thanks to Ebola panic, and warned me not to drink the water.
I saw this lion in South Africa, but I didn't see anyone with Ebola.
I don't blame anyone for asking me if I was worried about Ebola. Yet after another resounding "no" it all goes back to the notion that Africa is not a continent of 54 nations and 1.1 billion people, but just a lumped landmass full of poverty and disease.
Some stats for you: Liberia and Sierra Leone, arguably the epicenters of the Ebola outbreak, lie some 5,400 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa by car. A road trip between Seattle and Miami, about as far as you can go in the contiguous United States, would cover about 3,300 miles. My grandparents in Idaho and my mom in Illinois were closer to an Ebola victim than I was, and my friends in New York were within a few miles of Dr. Craig Spencer before he was released from care earlier this week.
One of my good friends who spent a fair amount of time in Sierra Leone before this most recent outbreak put it simply when I mentioned the line of questioning to her: "Anytime someone mentions 'Africa' to me I roll my eyes and tell them that it's not a country."
And that's just it. Yes, Ebola is scary, there isn't a cure, and people are dying. The disease has made it's way to the U.S., and it'll be some time before the current onslaught is contained. But Africa shouldn't provoke an instantaneous association with Ebola, because Africa is not a country -- it's the world's second largest continent, home to 15 percent of the planet's population, and a hell of a lot more than disease. Even if you were to travel to Monrovia or Freetown, Ebola isn't the kind of disease you can catch from a sneeze; it spreads via direct contact with bodily fluids and that's it.
When I landed in Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport, the only sign that Ebola was a thing more than 3,000 miles away was a short questionnaire for people arriving from West Africa and a quick temperature screening that took 30 seconds. Passport control in JFK Airport in New York City was equally tempered, with a sole television looping health advisories (as they always do) for travelers: dengue fever, Chikungunya, measles and, briefly, a slide on Ebola. Those coming directly from West African countries have to undergo additional screenings that include similar questionnaires and temperature readings.
But for the bulk of international travelers, there weren't rows of hazmat-suited officials lining the terminal corridors. Traveling to South Africa should incite the same amount of fear for Americans who plan to flock to Miami or Los Angeles this winter... none.
Ebola is an international health crisis, and the impact of the disease, especially among West African communities, is one of the most important news stories of the year. But although most of us will never know someone stricken with the illness, many of us feel like it's looming around every corner. You should take a moment to look at Google maps and recognize the sheer size of the African continent.
And if someone tells you they're going to South Africa (or Kenya, or Egypt or Namibia), tell them to have a nice trip, and ask if they've packed enough socks.