global health

why we need to change the ebola paradigm

A doctor has just been diagnosed with Ebola in New York City. Last night, a man ranted for 30 minutes to everyone on the subway car about how we’re all going to die from Ebola, right then and there, but luckily I had my big headphones on so I’m not really sure what he said. Anyway, now what?

According to NPR, 75% of Americans believe that banning travel from and to West Africa is the appropriate next step. This policy, however, is misguided. A travel ban would likely exacerbate the effects of the Ebola outbreak on various levels. It may not only worsen the spread of Ebola, but also engender xenophobic, racist, and prejudiced attitudes toward African immigrants. Sharpening the physical and philosophical divisions between the U.S. and West Africa will only broaden the chasm between “us” and “them,” when in reality there is only “us.”

We need to fight prejudice, not perpetuate it

The mainstream media, especially at the outset of the outbreak, told this story in a way that characterized Africans as primitive, dirty, sick–ideas that stem from a deep legacy of colonialism and racism. Africa was historically viewed as the “Heart of Darkness,” a place of savagery and backwardness. For some, it still is. The expression of these ideas is now more subtle, but nevertheless present. The narrative that the West has created still paints the African, the black person, as Other. Someone to be feared, a life of lesser value. This idea is extremely problematic. Now that Ebola has arrived in the U.S., people’s blame on Africans may only increase. Yet placing the blame on Africans ignores the fact that the broken health systems in which this all began exist as remnants of colonialism.

The association between poor Africans and disease becomes apparent in the way that people speak. Many are saying, “keep Ebola out” when they mean “keep people with Ebola out,” as if they are the same thing. But if we think about the difference between those two statements, the question of human rights quickly comes into our field of vision.

“Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS. Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease—yet we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat.” President Obama said this in 2010 when he lifted the travel ban on people with HIV. While his administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak has been less than ideal, his point demonstrates that a comparison to the AIDS crisis is absolutely relevant. Stigma was and still is a tremendous problem in response to the AIDS epidemic–now, we face a serious need to prevent stigma in regards to Ebola. Stigma and discrimination jeopardize human rights and put people’s lives at risk.

Exclusion is not a sound strategy

Those in favor of excluding people from West Africa claim that this would work to protect “national security.” As Vox has clearly outlined, there is no evidence that travel bans are effective public health measures. Laurie Garrett writes that “many nations have banned flights from other countries in recent years in hopes of blocking the entry of viruses, including SARS and H1N1 ‘swine flu.’ None of the bans were effective, and the viruses gained entry to populations regardless of what radical measures governments took to keep them out.”

Leaders like Paul Farmer of PIH, Thomas Frienden of the CDC, and other experts have explained that a ban would likely make the problem worse. If people are barred from the U.S., they will seek other ways to get here and their movement will be harder to track. Further, the work of NGOs and other aid groups, who are doing a lot on the ground, will be much more difficult. While some propose a selective travel ban in which only certain health professionals could get in and out, this would be complicated and counterproductive.

At the end of the day, the calls for a ban are entrenched in politics rather than sound public health policy. The majority of politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who are making the loudest calls for a travel ban are those on the campaign trail. Everyone wants to “keep Americans safe.” But if we are going to talk about “saving American lives,” perhaps we should discuss gun policies, the tobacco industry, or the structure of our food system. The language around public health always reflects political motives and social norms, and Ebola is no different.

There is a better way

Instead of focusing on how to keep the “problem” out, we should focus our efforts on the immediate containment of Ebola at its source. The U.S. and the international community must support the long-term improvement of the health systems in these affected countries. This requires things like strengthening government health facilities, building the capacity of local health workers, and improving access to care. These tasks are most effective when done through years of partnership with local people in country. This is nothing new.

While containing Ebola represents a major challenge, it is also an opportunity in which to act. This is the chance to collaborate for the sake of fundamental rights, social justice, and human dignity. Rather than revert to stereotypes grounded in racist phobias and a disregard for the Other, it’s time to lean toward a new attitude of pragmatic solidarity.

That seems intangible for those of us at home, but we can help mobilize resources by donating to worthy organizations like PIH, Wellbody Alliance, and Last Mile Health. We can be more conscious media consumers, call out dehumanization when we see it, and change the broader conversations that we are a part of.

Instead of choosing exclusion, we need to choose inclusion. We cannot afford to think of collective responsibility as a choice–if anything, the spread of Ebola illustrates that this is the world we live in. Global health is our health.

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2 thoughts on “why we need to change the ebola paradigm

  1. Pingback: Discussion as Support: A First-Year Einstein Medical Student Reflects

  2. Pingback: Complicit No More: Applying Anti-Oppression to Global Health – in-Training, the online magazine for medical students

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