The “Africanization” of Ebola

Many media outlets and Western anti-Ebola campaigns have perpetuated the devaluing of black lives everywhere by misrepresenting almost 10,000 black lives taken by the Ebola virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Mali.
Much of the public discourse has taken the liberty of sensationalizing Ebola deaths, and others have erroneously used dehumanizing video footage of Ebola victims in an attempt to raise funds. While media outlets are quick to censor the beheadings committed by ISIS, this same dignity has not been afforded to victims of the Ebola outbreak.
On December 6, 2013, the first case of Ebola was documented. “Patient zero,” as is often reported, was a two-year-old toddler from Guinea who presented with fever, black stool, and vomit. It is less often reported that his name was Emile Ouamouno and that he enjoyed playing ball with his father, Etienne, in the village of Meliandou where they lived. Still fewer sources document the deaths of the Guinean midwife, health care worker, and community doctor who lost their lives in service to Emile.
Instead, many media sources and anti-Ebola campaigns have often represented Ebola as an “African disease” ravaging the lives of faceless and nameless Africans in desperate need of salvation from the West. Images of white saviors have often overshadowed, and rendered invisible, the Africans providing care and mobilizing critical efforts in both the afflicted countries and other African nations.
Rumbi Mushavi ‘12, a first year student at Harvard Medical School and alumna of the Harvard African Students Association, first heard about the Ebola epidemic in December 2013, when a Ugandan doctor died of the virus while treating patients and setting up isolation units in Liberia. At the time, Rumbi was working in Mbarara, Uganda and attended his memorial service, where his family and friends—who could not travel to his burial in Liberia—mourned. Rumbi reflects, “Something that hasn’t been shared in the media is the extent to which African countries have provided—and sacrificed—their own medical staff.”
Even a World Health Organization article announcing that Nigeria is Ebola-free overlooked the role of African healthcare workers fighting the disease. While the article commended Nigeria’s “strong leadership and effective coordination of the response,” it failed to mention the Nigerian health care workers who died while treating the first Ebola patient in the country, including Dr. Stella Shade Aneyo Adadevoh. Instead, the report states that “contacts were physically monitored on a daily basis,” rendering invisible the (black) caretakers.
“It’s really been shocking to me that [certain news outlets] would do a photo-spread of the people at the forefront of the Ebola outbreak … where they post pictures of American or European expatriate doctors, while posting pictures of African gravediggers and janitors,” notes Rumbi. “African doctors and nurses have shouldered the greatest burden of the death toll,” but they are noticeably absent. These portrayals raise questions about the place of healthcare workers like Sierra Leonean doctors Victor Willoughby and Aiah Solomon Konoyeima, and Liberian Dr. Samuel Bisbane—who died of the virus while serving hundreds of Ebola patients.
In a recent lecture at Harvard University, Professor Paul Farmer of Harvard Medical School discussed the role of Africans in the fight against Ebola. Since the outbreak in late 2013, Dr. Farmer and his team at Partners in Health have worked alongside Liberian and Sierra Leonean doctors and government officials to provide care for those infected. He stated that the number of Ebola survivors is often lost in mortality statistics. In a video campaign, he joins other public figures in articulating that, “Ebola is not a death sentence.” Dr. Farmer noted that many Ebola survivors are currently working and leading community efforts in organizations like Partners in Health.
While the epidemic currently pervades three West African nations, reports and documents are quick to group these countries into a single African entity, thereby “Africanizing” the disease. Naseemah Mohammed ’12, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard alumna, discusses this “Africanization” of Ebola: “The media portrayal of Ebola relates to the general issues of stereotyping the African continent and African people. … [These stereotypes further the] idea that Africa is a dark continent, which is disease-ridden, and that African people have something inherent in them that makes them more susceptible or makes them carriers of disease.”
Mohammed notes, “I think the inefficiency of the media to understand the areas that were affected bled into Africans being targeted here in America.” She shared the experience of her aunt, who works in childcare: “One day, the family calls her and says to her, ‘I wanted to find out whether you would be able to work this week. I know you went to Zimbabwe. Are you okay with Ebola? Do you have Ebola? Have you had any visitors from Africa? The whole thing was a farce because my aunt had visited Zimbabwe, not Sierra Leone. The assumption was that because she was African, she must have Ebola.” In the case of Mohammed’s aunt, Ebola was put at the forefront of her identity as an African. While Mohammed’s aunt is certainly African, Ebola is not.
In the words of Dr. Joia Mukherjee, the chief medical officer at Partners in Health, the plague at the center of epidemics like Ebola “is racism, is inequality, is injustice. The plague will only be addressed when #blacklivesmatter.” We call for public portrayals that are explicitly inclusive of the accomplishments of Ebola-afflicted communities. Hundreds of black saviors in the fight against Ebola deserve more acknowledgment, as Time magazine recently provided. Popular portrayals continue to solely blame Africans for their weak governments and healthcare systems, while elevating former colonial powers—which were erected through black suffering—as generous benefactors. We must better demonstrate that the black lives at the forefront of the Ebola epidemic matter, too.
This op-ed was written by members of the Harvard African Students Association Political Action Committee.
Photo credits: Flickr/UNMEER/Simon Ruf

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