Racism, Xenophobia, and Media Coverage of the Ebola Virus
By Nana Brantuo, BIN Member – DC
In 1976, the first recorded outbreaks of the Ebola Virus Disease were identified in South Sudan (formerly a region of Sudan) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), resulting in the deaths of over 400 people. Outbreaks would continue over time in several African countries, controlled only by the combined efforts of various communities, health care professionals, governmental and nongovernmental organizations. All the while, the U.S. remained silent. The deaths of thousands of Africans across the continent were insignificant, only to be exploited by the news media in hopes of increased readership and capital gain. Fast-forward to December 2013, Ebola claims the lives of a 2-year old Guinean boy and his family – marking the beginning of the West African outbreak of Ebola that has gone on to claim the lives of an estimated 3,439 people. Once again, the U.S. remained silent…until the diagnosis of Ebola in two white American missionaries disrupted the “othering” of Africa and Africans that is typical within U.S. society. Suddenly, the lives of two white Americans outweighed the thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone fighting the disease, the thousands that had succumbed to the disease. Suddenly, this disease, unknown to the majority of the United States population, made way to its borders and violated the contract of privilege that guaranteed U.S. citizens immunity from all things foreign and unpleasant.
Thus began an inundation of ignorance, misinformation, racism, poverty porn, and xenophobia via the right-wing news media machine – continuing in its legacy of associating immigration with disease, exacerbating anti-immigrant sentiments, and dehumanizing Africa and Africans. While the media rushed to portray the missionaries in the most esteemed manner, Thomas Eric Duncan – a Liberian national who was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, Texas on the 30th of September and died on the 8th of October – was demonized and ridiculed, likely because of his black skin, foreign passport, and class status. In the face of a news media frenzy characterizing Africans (more so than the disease) in a negative light, African communities in the United States have contended with growing racist and xenophobic sentiments as Ebola continues to cut down the lives of people throughout Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Closing the Borders: Xenophobic Attitudes in Ebola News Coverage
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIH on the October 6th edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends
When Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in late September, the majority of the American public had little to no understanding of the disease – in particular its transmission and symptoms. Grasped by the fear of a seemingly imminent outbreak, many right-wing news media reports called for a travel ban on West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak. Like countless others calling for the closure of U.S. borders (as heard on The Rush Limbaugh Show and The Laura Ingraham Show), Elizabeth Hasselbeck, in conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci – Director of the National Institiute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, posed the question of sealing off the border without considering the consequences of blocking travel to countries in need of medical assistance and aid. Dr. Fauci’s response echoed that of several major public health officials, researchers, and organizations but the proposal of a travel ban itself begs the question of racial and xenophobic undertones. Why would travel bans be deemed an acceptable measure in dealing with African nations? Would the same measures be considered for European countries? In a country that is dealing with the Bubonic Plague in Colorado and Enterovirus in multiple states, Ebola poses little to no threat to the U.S. population – resulting in the unfortunate passing of Thomas Eric Duncan on October 8th.
Into the “Wild”: Newsweek’s Bushmeat Scare Tactics
The August 21st edition of Newsweek featured Gerard Flynn and Susan Scutti’s article entitled “Smuggled Bushmeat Is Ebola’s Back Door to America.” The title and cover are only the beginning of a problematic article. Flynn and Scutti manage to utilize imagery and language of “othering” found throughout western media, invoke xenophobic language, present little to no statistical evidence for claims on the importation of bushmeat in the United States, and misrepresent an entire continent. Playing on the general public’s ignorance, the authors attempt to instill fear of an impending health crisis borne out of the insatiable desire of a growing African immigrant population for bushmeat. Bushmeat, a term used for non-domesticated animals used for consumption, has traditionally been used in reference to the eating habits of African people. I suppose there aren’t U.S. citizens who consume rabbit, deer, squirrel, possum, fox, and other non-domesticated animals. While bushmeat is consumed by small segments of the population living in the Ebola stricken regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the majority of these nations’ populations are not eating chimpanzees – human-to-human contact being the primary mode of transmission of the Ebola virus.
The article is riddled with assumptions and overgeneralizations, provides little to no evidence in support of its claims, and is written in a style similar to early articles and novels on the “dark continent.” The second paragraph of the article itself calls the author’s intentions into question as they enter the Bronx “…looking for bushmeat, the butchered harvest of African wildlife, and an ethnic delicacy in West African expatriate communities all over the world.” Relying heavily on a single interview with a Ghanaian American along with scant and scattered statistics, the authors concluded the rising number of African immigrants in the United States will increase the likelihood of an Ebola outbreak in the United States – ultimately calling for the curtailment of trade with African countries. Considering past and present trends in foodborne illnesses in the United States, with Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Vibro causing the deaths of 80 people in 2013, along with segments of the population known to consume non-domesticated animals, why is it acceptable to pose the unwarranted threat of “bushmeat” as the “backdoor” for Ebola into the United States? This display of irresponsible and poorly researched journalism plays on the media’s fascination with portraying African people as “others,” consuming disease-ridden food in spite of posed health risks.
Backwardness and Witch Craft: Racist Attitudes in Ebola News Coverage
Fox News is notorious for its biased and bigoted reporting of domestic and international news. Following the diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan with Ebola, reporters on Fox News came full throttle with racist, xenophobic remarks targeted at Africans on the continent and the African community in the United States. In the clips to follow, Fox News reporters manage to merge racist attitudes with misconstrued statistics and reports for the sake of increased viewership.
Tantaros, O’Reilly, and Goldberg (Bernie Goldberg on Fox News’ October 6th edition of The O’Reilly Factor) use their reporting platforms to formulate and launch a direct assault indigenous medicine, knowledge, and spirituality throughout the African continent. With little to no understanding of Africa, Africans, and the African Diaspora, the three boldly and freely present their poorly researched assertions to the viewing audience – clearly underscored with racist language and attitudes. It begins with Tantaros’ claim to understanding the health practices and preferences of an entire continent. She states, “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. In these countries, they do not believe in traditional medical care and someone could get off of a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor who practices Santería.”
In less than 60 seconds, Andrea Tantaros displays a frightening level of ignorance and disrespect. She not only characterizes vast majority of African peoples as resistance to medical assistance, she makes the claim that Africans flying into the United States (if knowingly infected with Ebola) would seek assistance from “witch doctors” who practice Santería – an Afro-Cuban religion. Several problems arise with Tantaros’ statement. First, Tantaros has a complete lack of understanding of difference among African and African Diaspora cultures. Santería is practiced among Afro-Cubans and is based off of traditional Yoruba (an ethnic group located in Nigeria) beliefs, traditions, and folklore. Santería is not practiced in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone. Second, it is problematic to assert that the majority of the Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean populations are not accepting of medical services and assistance. While segments of the population do rely on indigenous medicine (which has proven to be efficient in combating certain ailments and diseases), lack of money and transportation of a large portion of these populations is more of deterrent than that of distrust of Western medical practitioners. Also, the mistrust of Western medicine is not far fetched considering past occurrences that violated the trust and human rights of Africans and African descendants (see Medical Apartheid and America’s Shameful Ebola Ignorance)
Following Miles O’Brien’s chastisement of Tantaros and the Fox News Network, Bill O’Reilly, comes to the rescue of a fellow Fox News report. He begins his segment with a poorly contextualized Doctors Without Border’s report on the reliance of rural people in several African nations on traditional medicine. Bernie Goldberg picks up where Tantaros and O’Reilly left off, insisting that “many Africans in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and places like that are backward people.” There is no need to dig deep into Goldberg’s statement. They are clearly misinformed, racially charged, and disrespectful. What is alarming and in need of further investigation is the open display of arrogance and ignorance among right-wing media correspondents, along their poor mastery of skills (i.e. research, multiple sources of information) necessary for commentary on news.
Over the past two months, we’ve been exposed to best and worst of news coverage on the Ebola virus. The conservative, right-wing media has run rampant with racism and xenophobia with the intentions of instilling negative attitudes towards Africans and African immigrants in the United States – at points calling for the closure of U.S. borders, increased airport screenings, and other extreme measures to curtail an unlikely Ebola outbreak. The fear and panic has not been directed in ways to help those fighting against Ebola but rather towards those people considered vessels of the disease, Africans, regardless of national origin, immigration status, and citizenship. In the wake of deaths of thousands of Africans, it is critical to not only understand the tactics and strategies used by the conservative, right-wing news media to strip Africans (on the continent and abroad) of humanity but critique and challenge the assertions of news media networks and publications that taint the primary purpose of journalism – to gather and disseminate news and information to the public.
Nana Brantuo is a writer, poet and activist in Washington D.C.