Like Sars and swine flu before it, Ebola has gripped the national imagination. I was made all too aware of this last week on my return to London from a holiday in Nigeria.
I’m now two thirds of the way through my second pregnancy, and was due to have a routine midwife’s appointment the day after my flight landed at Heathrow. The only problem was that my midwives refused to see me. They took this precaution as a result of two factors – my poorly toddler, who had a slight temperature, and heavy news coverage of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. They referred me instead to my GP. Their wisdom was debatable. I was travelling from Nigeria, a country in which so far only two people have been quarantined as a result of possible contact with the disease. And in any case, a GP’s waiting room is not the best place to take a potentially deadly virus. Thank goodness I’m not infected.
Faced with the possibility of Ebola, my midwife was overly cautious. It’s a reaction I can understand, so I’m not inclined to judge or diminish it. Media coverage of the outbreak, however, doesn’t deserve the same reticence. In the press, communities dealing with the virus have been presented as irrationally suspicious of western medicine. The suggestion has been that they are, like the continent they live on, their own worst enemies.
Reporting should do more than repeat stale narratives of African “ignorance”; frontline health workers have exposed themselves to huge risk. The fact that remote west African communities may view medics with suspicion is therefore understandable. Fear and mistrust of western institutions might also be explicable in the context of a history of exploitation by multinationals and colonial governments alike.
Decontextualising the suspicion some people might display runs the risk of projecting “the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation”. This was Chinua Achebe’s searing critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in 1975. You don’t have to look too far to see the resonances today. The Sunday Times invoked Conrad’s novel with the front page headline, “Ebola doctor’s diary of hell in heart of Africa”, and, served up with breakfast or brunch, these stories act as a stark reminder of how vulnerable the trappings of our wealth and modernity are in the face of Africa’s diseased hordes.
This fear is not unlike those expressed by the anti-immigration brigade. Arguing that too much immigration “threatens” the stability of our fragile society, we allow “them” in at our peril. It’s not surprising then that the spotlight on Ebola has begun to stir latent anti-immigration sentiments. From being just an occasional feature in the news, part of the background noise of our busy lives, the virus has become a palpable reality – perhaps only hours away from each of us.
In April the Facebook status of Italian anti-immigration group, Catena Umana (Human Chain) read: “Stop all arrivals, close all borders or keep [the migrants] in quarantine on the sea. Do you want to give the citizenship to Ebola as well?”
Last month Republican Phil Gingrey, speaking of Mexican immigrants primarily as a public health risk, raised the spectre of the deadly virus. In an impassioned letter to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gingrey referred to unsubstantiated “reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis”.
Irrespective of location, the stigma of Ebola can be attached to any unwanted migrant group. In the UK, the comments left beneath articles on the subject often reflect the prevailing anti-immigration climate – except now they are presented within the framework of science and public health; the best way to stop it reaching us is to look at how we can stop more of them getting in. Rather than being focused on the desperate reality of communities who are living with the virus, our attention has been drawn inwards, towards ourselves. How will it affect us? In what ways are we in danger?
Four months ago Ebola looked like yet another far-off possibility not worth worrying about. The disease’s quiet rampage in the distant forests of west Africa went largely unnoticed. It is only now, with the possibility of Ebola reaching us via the next flight in, that we realise how interconnected we are. In the age of diaspora and globalisation, it is ridiculous to think that we are, or could be, a fortress.