The Underlying Racism of Ebola Coverage

By Jamilah King Oct 17, 2014

It’s impossible to ignore the racist undertones in much of the world’s Ebola coverage. Just yesterday, the United Nations huaman rights chief warned against anti-African discrimination over the disease. But it’s already happening. Stassa Edwards over at Jezebel offers this:

African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.

The Western medical discourse on Africa has never been particularly subtle: the continent is often depicted as an undivided repository of degeneration. Comparing the representations of disease in Africa and in the West, you can hear the whispers of an underlying moral panic: a sense that Africa, and its bodies, are uncontainable. The discussion around Ebola has already evoked–almost entirely from Tea Party Republicans–the explicit idea that American borders are too porous and that all manners of perceived primitiveness might infect the West.

Edwards goes on to give a brief history of racist moral panics around disease.

In the United States, where the first Ebola-infected patient, Liberian-born Thomas Eric Duncan, died, the disease is increasingly becoming a stand-in for blackness. As Hannah Giorgis writes at the Guardian:

[Duncan] – and the West Africans to whom he is tied by both birth and cause of death – have become nothing more than disease vectors responsible for infecting innocent western health workers, tarnishing pristine nations by importing the blemish of an African scourge. And yet, American citizenship alone does not sanitize the blight of blackness; Amber Joy Vinson, the second healthcare worker diagnosed with the virus, is already being met with scrutiny as Nina Pham’s quarantined dog receives anoutpouring of support.

Read more.