The Historical Roots of the Ebola Scare in the United States

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tags: Ebola



Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and was historian at the JFK Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000. 

For many weeks, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and especially on the Internet, there has been a steady drumbeat of fear, panic, paranoia, misinformation, and ignorance about an Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Perhaps most regrettable, has been the effort to politicize the illness and blame the “outbreak” on President Obama. Some have gleefully called the virus “Obola;” others have even charged that the administration deliberately introduced this African disease as a covert form of slavery reparations to punish white America for the crime of slavery. There have also been much more serious allegations that the government is covering up the frightening truth that Ebola is transmitted through the air as well as through contact with a patient’s bodily fluids; this view has been espoused by Senator Rand Paul, who told college students that “This thing is incredibly contagious” and the Obama administration “has downplayed how transmissible it is," and echoed by political analyst George Will, who warned ominously against believing the medical and scientific experts. New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown insists that an Ebola epidemic is coming, carried by arrivals from Africa and even by illegal immigrants with ties to ISIS crossing the Mexican border. It is common sense, he contends, for the public to reject the views of so-called experts.

Of course, there is no Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Thus far three people have been diagnosed with Ebola in Texas and one in New York. There has been just one fatality, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national visiting his family in Dallas. The two nurses who came into direct contact with his bodily fluids have recovered. The lax medical protocols in Dallas that contributed to the illness of the two nurses have already been tightened so that the New York case is very unlikely to lead to additional infections.

Meanwhile, during the same period, some seven hundred American children and adolescents in 45 states and D.C. have been diagnosed with the Enterovirus, and at least two have died. That virus is easily transmitted, much like the common cold or the flu. It seems, according to the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, “When people are anxious about a threat like Ebola, it doesn’t necessarily matter if they look at numbers, facts and probabilities. Because of the way our brains work, something rare and exotic is much scarier than something that’s familiar.”

Is it just “the way our brains work” or is something else at work here that has deep roots in the American past? Duncan’s family, with whom he stayed for several days after becoming ill, has now gone through the 21-day quarantine period. None contracted Ebola. But, an online news site immediately questioned whether the incubation period may really be longer than 21 days, and another proclaimed that Duncan’s family would still be burdened with the stigma of having been exposed to Ebola—a claim notably absent in the cases of the three white American doctors who contracted the disease in Africa but were successfully treated after returning to the United States.

Anyone familiar with America’s racial past will detect some disturbing parallels in these irrational if not hysterical fears: bringing to mind, for example, the 17th century conviction that blackness was a physical and moral curse that consigned Africans to the status of diseased outcasts who must remain permanently under white control; the 19th century defense of slavery as a “positive good” for blacks and whites alike; the popular early 20th century “scientific” literature which proclaimed “The Negro, A Beast;” and the defense of segregation as the last hope for preserving a pure and separate white America.

The response to the thus far much more serious Enterovirus has generally been muted and reasonable. But, what if that virus, rather than Ebola, had been brought to the United States from Africa? Would it now be politically exploited as the Onterovirus and linked to fears of a conspiracy at the highest levels of the government? If one looks at the photos of Thomas Eric Duncan’s family in Texas, what you see is a group of poor, scared, and isolated people who are learning that the stigma associated with Ebola is, at least for them, irreversible, in part because it is embedded in attitudes long associated with blackness itself in our nation’s history.



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