THE BLOG
08/08/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

Ebola Emissions

On August 6, CNN projected a map of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, in which the Republic of Niger, a sparsely populated impoverished nation where there are few, if any, Ebola cases, was labeled Nigeria, which, compared to Niger, has a very large population, a robust economy, and a rather intense outbreak of the "killer virus." One reader of Al Jazeera's report on the mistake, Nana Lomingo Nasson, wrote: "Africa is not a country. The virus is only causing havoc in a few countries. Please don't comment before you have done some research. You will let your ignorance show."

In the media world, though, Africa is, indeed, a homogenous country ravaged by intractable poverty, incessant famine, corrupt governments, and legions of backward ignorant villagers who don't believe in the modern nation state, let alone scientific medicine. These village Africans don't trust their governments and hold even less trust in medical interventions.

Consider the latest World Health Organization (WHO) statement published in CNN's August 8 report on Ebola.

The possible consequences of further international spread are particularly serious in view of the virulence of the virus, the intensive community and health facility transmission patterns, and the weak health systems in the currently affected and most at-risk countries.

In the same CNN report, Dr. Keiji Fekuda, WHO's assistant director for health security stated:

Perhaps one of the most important factors contributing to this is fear and misinformation. This is critical to understand, because what it is doing is that it helps foster suspicion and anxiety in communities, and when that happens we see a situation where people are reluctant to go to health facilities or maybe reluctant to bring their family members there. And it underscores the importance of communities being aware and understanding, but we also see that fear impacts other countries.

The Ebola outbreak is very serious which means that the media and officials should consider it with resolute seriousness rather than with customary expedience. It is certainly important for the media to interview physicians with expertise in the epidemiology of tropical diseases. But it is also important to interview West African intellectuals as well as western scholars who have actually lived among West African peoples -- people who have on-the-ground experience that extends beyond a quick reporting trip. Given the importance of the situation, it would also be important for our policy-makers and public officials to listen to what these on-the-ground experts have to say.

If we take the expedient route, we run the risk of a racially contoured political contagion that could lead to panic and ill-advised decision-making. In France, my anthropological colleague and fellow Africanist David Berliner has reported brilliantly on Jean-Marie Le Pen's suggestion that Ebola would be one way to purge France of its contagion of immigrants. For Le Pen, the symbolic specter of Ebola can be used to promote his brand of racism and nativism. Closer to home, the irrepressible Ann Coulter, an A-list nativist -- at least in her written exposition -- had this to say about the missionary physician who recently contracted Ebola in Liberia

If he had provided health care for the uninsured editors, writers, videographers and pundits in Gotham and managed to open one set of eyes, he would have done more good than marinating himself in medieval diseases of the Third World.

The medical rhetoric about hapless natives whose cultural practices help to expand the scourge of "killer" diseases often reinforces the fear of a medically contoured cultural contagion. "We don't want these people to bring 'their medieval diseases of the Third World' to the US or France." Much of the anger over and fear about the Central American children stranded along the Mexican-American border, after all, is about the potential for "infection." "Who knows that these 'kids' are carrying -- diseases, a different language and culture?" In the case of Ebola, there have been calls to suspend travel between the US and West Africa for fear that an infected traveler might bring the deadly virus to America.

The Guardian's James Ball has brought some much-needed sanity to the Ebola media frenzy, a thoughtfulness that should be quoted at length

A deadly disease is set to hit the shores of the US, UK and much of the rest of the northern hemisphere in the coming months. It will swamp our hospitals, lay millions low and by this time next year between 250,000 and 500,00 worldwide will be dead, thousands of them in the US and Britain.

Despite the best efforts of the medical profession, there's no reliable cure, and no available vaccine offers effective protection for longer than a few months at a time. If you've been paying attention to recent, terrifying headlines, you may assume the illness is the Ebola virus. Instead, the above description refers to seasonal flu -- not swine or bird flu, but regular garden variety influenza.

Our fears about illness often bear little relation to our chances of falling victim to it, a phenomenon not helped by media coverage, which tends towards the novel and lurid rather than the particularly dangerous.

Ebola has become the stuff of hypochondriacs' nightmares across the world. In the UK, the Daily Mirror had 'Ebola patient dies at Gatwick' (the patient didn't have Ebola), while New York's news outlets (and prominent tweeters) experienced their own Ebola scare.

Even intellectual powerhouses such as Donald Trump have fallen into panic, with the mogul calling for the US to shut off all travel to West Africa and revoke citizens' right to return to the country -- who cares about fundamental rights during an outbreak? Not to be outdone, the endlessly asinine 'explanatory journalism' site Vox informed us that 'If the supercontinent Pangaea spontaneously reunited, the US would border the Ebola epidemic.'

In the conclusion to this thoughtful piece Ball rightly suggests that many more people will die from malaria and tuberculosis than from Ebola.

In the coming months, almost none of us will catch the Ebola virus. Many of us, though, will get fevers, headaches, shivers and more.

As planes get grounded, communities are stigmatized, and mildly sick people fear for their lives, it's worth reflecting what the biggest threat to our collective wellbeing is: rare tropical diseases, or our terrible coverage of them.

The coverage of the Ebola outbreak is a window into how ill informed we are about disease, geography and culture. It reinforces stereotypes of Africa as a "country," in which medieval African villagers, who practice backward ritual rites, unwittingly spread medieval Third World diseases into First World spaces. Following the coverage, it's clear that Africa's incompetent and corrupt governments are powerless to do anything about it.

For anyone who was born in an African nation or who has spent years living among African peoples, none of these widely believed ignorant assertions reflect the complex realities of social life in Africa. It is certainly true that African nations are poor, but isn't poverty also expanding here in the US? And yes, there is government corruption in West Africa, but we have no shortage of that here in America. And yes, African peoples do perform "backward" rites, but here in America people handle snakes and drink poison when the the Holy Ghost possesses them.

Indeed the ignorant talk and squawk about Ebola demonstrates palpably how our perceptions, beliefs, and comprehension of things African has devolved through antiquated discourses of disease, race and colonialism, discourses that sadly shape our politics and policies. Having spent seven years of my life in some of the remote African villages that CNN commentators like to mention, what impresses is the remarkable resilience of those villagers. Despite living in conditions that most of us cannot image, most of my African friends, despite their poverty, somehow manage to live full and satisfying lives, a kind of well-being that I've rarely witnessed in America. Instead of thinking of them as brutes whose primitive ways enable the spread of deadly disease, we should celebrate them as models for living well in the contemporary world.