THE BLOG
10/30/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Ebolaphobia Going Viral

"If we feel afraid, it isn't what we don't know that frightens us,
it's what we think we do know." ~ Allan G. Johnson in Power, Privilege, and Difference

Two brothers, Pape, 13-year-old eight-grader, and Amidou, 11-year-old sixth-grader, reported being attacked and bashed by a mob of their classmates on the playground of their Bronx, New York Intermediate School 318. Pape and Amidou, who were born in the United States, lived in Senegal in West Africa for a time to learn French. They moved back to the U.S. one month age to rejoin their father, Ousmane Drame, a Senegalese American.

Throughout the violent attack, classmates taunted the brothers with chants of "You're Ebola!" The boys were rushed to a local hospital with severe injuries. During a press conference at the Senegalese American Association in Harlem and flanked by community leaders, the boys' father, a 62-year-old cab driver, reported that "They go to gym, and [taunters] say, 'You don't touch the ball, you have Ebola, if you touch it we will all get Ebola.'" The elder Drame claimed that the school did nothing to prevent or to intervene in the attack, and did not even write an incident report.

Though one case of Ebola was reported earlier in Senegal, this month the World Health Organization declared Senegal free of Ebola virus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, a Senegalese mother announced that her 9-year-old daughter was bullied at her Harlem school, and when she came home, her daughter asked, "Mommy, do I have Ebola?"

The vast majority of people with Ebola are limited to the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. A person may contract the virus from one who is infected only if that person displays symptoms (including heightened fever, headache, joint and muscle pain, sore throat, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, rash, and red eyes - which indicate a number of other diseases as well) and comes into contact with the infected person's bodily fluids. Ebola is not an airborne infectious disease, like the common cold or the flu, and cannot be transmitted through casual contact.

Kaci Hickok, a nurse who treated people with Ebola in West Africa, and who shows no signs of the illness, is threatening legal action against Maine state officials who have requested she undergo a 21-day quarantine confinement in her home. She and her legal team assert that her treatment raises "serious constitutional and civil liberties issues," and makes no sense medically or scientifically. Hickok declared that she "will not sit around and be bullied by politicians."

Though the New York school students and Kari Hickok do not carry the Ebola virus, a virus of fear and suspicion seems to have infected not only these schools, but, rather, reflect the spreading epidemic of fear rapidly transmitting across the nation.

For example, President Barack Obama pushed back against New York Governor Mario Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's mandatory quarantine of health care workers returning from Africa. "American in the end," said Obama, "is not defined by fear."

Obama might be correct in his assessment that the U.S. "in the end" "...is not defined by fear," but on its way to that "end," the process of nations coming to terms with disease is often circuitous and awash with dread, loathing, prejudice, scapegoating, blame, stereotyping, and discrimination. For example, Jews were once erroneously blamed for causing and spreading the plague, syphilis, and trachoma; Asians for infesting others with hookworm; Mexicans with infecting people with lice and Dengue fever.

Our path toward understanding Ebola mirrors, in numerous ways, our coming to know HIV/AIDS a mere generation or so ago.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) undertook the first comprehensive national survey in 1990 addressing the issue of prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS and their health care providers. According to the report, "Epidemic of Fear": "This study shows how extraordinarily persistent discrimination remains in this country, even after science has provided there is no risk of casual transmission."

In California alone, within thirty months of HIV coming to light in the U.S., legislators introduced three statewide ballot initiatives that, if passed, would have effectively imposed quarantine on people with HIV/AIDS.

Ronald Reagan, under whose presidency the AIDS pandemic was detected and spread, had not formally raised the issue until April 1, 1987 in a speech to a group of physicians in Philadelphia -- a full seven years after the onset of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Before this, however, when it was seen as a disease of primarily gay and bisexual men, Pat Buchanan, "serving" as Reagan's Chief of Communications between 1985-1987, was quite outspoken, referring to AIDS as nature's "awful retribution," and saying it did not deserve a thorough and compassionate response.

Writing in his syndicated column in 1986, Buchanan wrote: "The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution (AIDS)."

In his response to HIV in 1987, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms proposed that "Somewhere along the line, we're going to have to quarantine people with AIDS," and for over 20 years, he consistently opposed expanded federal support and funding to AIDS research. In 1987, Helms spearheaded an amendment in the US Senate, prohibiting federal funding for AIDS educational materials that "promote or encourage...homosexual sexual activity."

Under Helms's sponsorship, Congress passed an amendment in 1989 to restrict all National Endowment for the Arts funding of any art deemed "homoerotic" or "religiously offensive." In 1990, he referred to gay and lesbian people as "weak, morally sick wretches," and has accused them of "engaging in incredibly offensive and revolting conduct." He warned against "homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in the streets, demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other."

In her book, Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS, Cindy Patton argues: "The belief in dirty individuals who leave germs in their wake creates a terror that anyone a little different harbors disease, and has the power to invade the human body. Honest concern about real illness blurs with the need to separate from people feared for racist, sexist, or homophobic reasons."

Patton asserted that by deploying the label "disease," society, through it leaders, justifies "genocide, ghettorization, and quarantine."

Though no one can reasonably argue that infectious diseases pose no concern or risk of spreading, I argue, though, that as a nation, we must investigate the rational science of transmission and avoid acting on fear, baseless speculation, and apparent political expediency. What we need, instead, is a consistent and unified policy and messaging coming from leaders in medical science and in government.

Though we may pass laws designed to ensure people's civil and human rights, conduct educational and diversity training sessions, and though times may have changed somewhat for the better, as the proverb attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr goes, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

I hope in the case of Ebola, we can prove Karr wrong.