When Fear of Contagious Disease Rationalizes Discrimination

November 16, 2014

According to the Center for Disease and Control (CDC), the 2014 outbreak of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever is the largest outbreak of the virus in history and the virus’ first epidemic. While Nigeria has managed to stop the flow of new cases, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have widespread transmission of the virus. As of 5 November, there have been 13,015 lab confirmed cases between these three countries; the actual number of cases is probably significantly higher. The 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus is, undoubtedly, a health crisis in West Africa.

 

Quarantine and immigration policies in Western countries, including the United States (U.S.), Australia and Canada, seem to categorize the virus as a threat to national health and security in Western countries, but this is not necessarily true. Ebola has been constructed as a threat to Western countries by the media and politicians. This has brought about rhetorical and political responses that are disproportionate to the actual threat of the virus. The result is the dehumanization of victims and the impediment of efforts to treat victims and contain the outbreak in West Africa. In the West, Ebola is more dangerous to social relations than to public health.  

 

A paper published by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies analyzed “the relationship between epidemics, national security, and immigration policy”. The paper claims that epidemics have historically been the biggest security threat to humans. The paper goes on to claim that epidemics are a threat to states’ national security.

 

Firstly, an epidemic poses an economic threat “through its affect on human health and productivity” in three ways. It will increase the morality rate, render infected citizens unable to work and cause suboptimal performance among those still able to work. We can concede that an epidemic would constitute an economic threat to national security, but what is not obvious is that Ebola is, or even has the potential to become, an epidemic in Western countries. 

 

According to the CDC, the current number of lab confirmed cases of Ebola in the U.S. is four; three of these patients recovered from the virus. There been have no lab confirmed cases in Canada or Australia. However, both countries have instituted immigration restrictions according to the World Socialist Web Site. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris signed an order that effectively suspended “consideration of all visa and permanent residency applications from foreign nationals who are or have been present in a country that is experiencing widespread transmission of the virus.

 

This order is problematic in a couple of ways. First, the government’s definition of being “present” in an affected country is too broad, so that someone who passed through an airport in an affected country would fall under the restriction. The order also applies to anyone planning to visit one of the affected countries in the future. Second, health professionals claim that denying visa applications could impede efforts to develop a treatment for the disease by preventing scientists from collaborating with researchers in Canada, who have actually been at the forefront of developing two experimental vaccines for the virus. Canada is not fulfilling its commitments to the international community, because their policies put strains on legitimate, non-threatening immigration.

 

Secondly, the paper claims that an epidemic would pose a domestic and internal security threat. It says that an epidemic may contribute to the construction of the ‘other’. This may result “in stigmatization, persecution of minors, and even diffuse inter-ethic or inter-class violence.” In the case of the 2014 outbreak, it is not the disease itself which is having these effects but the hysteria over the perceived threat of the virus. The symptoms of an epidemic are apparent, but the virus is only indirectly responsible for these. The threat of the disease was constructed and can be deconstructed with the reverse of what is currently being done.

 

It is the arguably premature and unwarranted quarantine and immigration policies that have contributed to the stigmatizing of Ebola patients and the workers treating patients in Africa and in the U.S. Because only five cases of Ebola have been confirmed outside of Africa, including one in Spain, Ebola is not an epidemic in the West. However, the stringent policies that some Western countries have implemented in response to Ebola seem to portray it as a global pandemic.

 

Either the policies of Western countries aimed at preventing Ebola from infecting their citizens are proactive and reasoned or else they are rationalized, institutionalized racism. The Australian Human Rights Commission has this to say about casual racism: “Like other forms of racism, casual racism can marginalise, denigrate or humiliate those who experience it.” Casual racism “can exclude the target from wider society. It sends a message that they aren’t welcome. It reinforces social barriers and attacks the dignity of the victim as an equal member of society.” People in Western countries may perceive people from West Africa as dangerous because they associate them with Ebola. This could isolate West Africans from the rest of society. There have been instances throughout history when fear of disease caused society to shun those it thought were contagious.  

 

These policies are suspect because there is a lack of scientific knowledge of the disease by the public and policy makers. Additionally, the threat the disease poses to states’ national security has been over-exaggerated. States’ response to contagious diseases is not consistent; the threat of Ebola has been overstated while the flu, which kills thousands of people annually in the U.S. alone, is largely ignored.

 

In the U.S., New Jersey and New York have implemented a quarantine policy for anyone traveling from one of the affected West African countries. Australia and Canada have stopped short of quarantine policy, but have put restrictions on immigration. According to the World Socialist Web Site, “Canada is suspending consideration of all visa and permanent residency applications from foreign nationals who are or have been present in a country with ‘widespread and intense transmissions of the Ebola virus’ within the past three months.” 

 

The same site claims that Canada’s policy response demonstrates “callous indifference” to the plight of Ebola patients in West Africa. The Canadian government is blatantly putting the interests of its nationals above the interests of other people at higher risk of contracting the virus purely on the basis of their nationality. The international community should be prioritizing international health and not undermining efforts to treat the infected and contain the virus at its origin. It seems that the West’s concern over Ebola does not extend to West Africa. It is important to try to explain this obvious discrepancy. 

 

Casual racism is also apparent in the language spoken by politicians and the public in the U.S. According to the Guardian, former U.S. Senator Scott Brown used the language of security to roll the Islamic State, U.S./Mexico border concerns and the Ebola outbreak into one super-threat to national security. He told voters before midterm elections, “I think it’s all connected. We have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it. I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases”.

 

First, he uses non-precise language to refer to contagious diseases, because the intent of his language is not to inform but to alarm citizens. His opponent in his more recent bid for Senate, Jenna Shaheen, accurately referred to his statement as “fear-mongering”. His rhetoric is consistent with the construction of the ‘other’ as a threat, as was discussed at the beginning of this article. One of Brown’s supporters, Frank Demi, asked, “What’s stopping ISIS from getting contaminated people, sneaking them into this country and setting them free among the people?”

 

Brown’s fear-mongering was seemingly effective in generating a caricature of Ebola victims and establishing ties between real threats to security and the imagined threat of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. The fear over Ebola is disproportionate and therefore not constructive. Instead, it may propagate suspicion of those at risk of the virus which would rationalize racial discrimination.

 

In addition to having elements of casual racism, quarantine policies and restricted immigration in response to the Ebola outbreak may be counter-productive. Ebola surely does pose a threat to global health and security but not in the way that the media and politicians say it does. The policies of some Western countries will isolate and stigmatize workers treating Ebola patients and could prevent supplies and a vaccine, if one is developed, from reaching the countries where they are needed.

 

Therefore, the policies discussed in this article are not only unnecessary but they may actually obstruct efforts to contain the infection in West Africa. The Ebola virus does constitute a threat to security in Western countries, but not in the way we might think. It poses a threat to security because of the effects that misinformed policies can have on social relations.  

 

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