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Fear Factor: Ebola and the Politics of Paranoia

Nicholas Powers Oct 28

When he coughed, I flinched. As the train left Jamaica Station, I studied the people with airport luggage. What if one of them has Ebola? The deadly virus has spread through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and was carried by an infected jet passenger to Dallas, where he died. Then, a doctor was diagnosed with it right here in New York. Had it spread? Was it on this train? Shaking my head, I realized that we’re infected with something worse than Ebola.

Paranoia is the first symptom of a plague. When news of an infectious disease like Ebola, SARS or swine flu breaks, the risks quickly ignite underlying social fears that themselves become a danger. When the disease passes, carrying off however many or few to an early death, what remains is the bigotry. Today it is West African immigrants, yesterday it was gay men during the HIV panic and hundreds of years ago, during the Black Death of the 14th century, it was Jews.

Throughout history, terrified people have hidden behind barricades and turned on scapegoats. It’s happening again as conservatives sound alarms about Ebola. They want to stop flights from West Africa. And seal the border with Mexico. They demand we become Fortress America. And build walls to quarantine the sick. But it’s exactly those “walls,” whether physical, psychological or both, that cause unnecessary mass death.

On the other side, trapped in quarantine, are panicked people trying to escape. If they see no hope, no new doctors or hospitals, they will run. And when they do, it will make contact tracing nearly impossible. They need intervention, not isolation. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that by December, the outbreak could pick up pace to 10,000 new cases a week. By January, it’s possible that 1.4 million people will be infected. And if the mortality rate stays at 70 percent, we’re looking at the death of roughly a million human beings. If they die, it won’t be from Ebola but from the politics of fear.

Origins of the Disease

December 2013 — in the Guinean village of Meliandou, a 2-year-old boy vomits into his hands. He is cradled by his mother, who washes him down as his eyes flutter. Days after he dies, she is coughing up blood and stumbling in a fever haze in the street. Later, her body is handled by family and friends, who prepare it for a funeral. Mourners come to pay their respects, and many unwittingly carry the Ebola virus away with them.

A team of researchers, led by Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute of Berlin, mapped the current outbreak to a bat colony near the village. They think that the young boy was bitten by one and became infected.

Discovered in 1976, Ebola first broke out in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally known as Zaire). Each epidemic begins with fruit bats, which are immune to the virus but act as its natural reservoir. Ebola spreads from them after they drop partly-eaten fruit that is then polished off by grazing animals like gorillas, that in turn are hunted and eaten by humans. Or directly, when the bats are caught and eaten by people.

Since 1976 at least fifteen Ebola outbreaks have been recorded. Three of these were major ones. In 1995, the virus killed 254 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Five years later another outbreak in Uganda took 224. Since then there have been only sporadic and smaller incidents, until now. As of this writing, the WHO reports nearly 10,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths. But the WHO and other governmental institutions openly acknowledge this is an underestimation. The real number many be many times more and the transmission rate is growing exponentially.

As deadly as it is, one reason Ebola has not become an epidemic until now is because it is actually hard to catch. Direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids — blood, feces, vomit, semen, mucus, sweat, tears, breast milk or urine — is the method of transmission. If the virus gets into orifices like the nose, mouth, eyes, vagina or anus, or in open wounds, then you get infected.

The first symptoms are fatigue, fever and aching joints. They appear between two to 21 days after exposure, and after that it becomes possible to infect others. An infected individual will then feel chest pain and shortness of breath and may get a skin rash. Ebola drills microscopic holes in the capillaries, causing the body to bleed internally. They may cough up blood. The whites of the eyes may go red.

The mortality rate of Ebola can be anywhere from 25 to 90 percent, depending on how developed the health care infrastructure in the location of the outbreak is. Treatment is only symptomatic. Doctors can’t cure the virus but only stabilize the body with hydrotherapy and plasma and blood transfusions. All of this means that the final tally of who lives and who dies is not about the disease itself but the political and economic history surrounding it. We are not dealing with an End Times plague but with the lottery of death.

The Petri Dish of Disaster

“EBOLA IS REAL,” read the sign. On the rain-swept streets of Monrovia, Liberia, people see bright street murals warning of the virus and detailing its symptoms. When Vice News reporter Danny Gold went to visit the city’s Redemption Hospital, his cameraman recorded corpses covered with cardboard in the street. At the hospital’s entrance, an Ebola-stricken man lay in the latrine.

“Everything is completely overwhelmed,” Gold said as looked at the camera, eyes knotted with frustration. “There is just a complete shortage of medical professionals, health care facilities, of space to treat this disease.” Behind his simple statement is an unspoken history, which is that Western imperialism has made Africa into a petri dish of disaster.

The first social condition of this outbreak is the centuries of imperialism, neocolonialism, civil war and local corruption that left West African infrastructure in tatters. The D.C.-based think tank Fund for Peace, which assesses the security environment of developing countries, put Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone near the bottom of its Fragile States index. These nations have weak central governments, porous borders, sparse public services, high crime and precarious economies. The Ebola pandemic is not a biological disaster, it’s a political one.

In the wake of poverty comes food scarcity. If one of the main disease vectors for Ebola is infected bushmeat, monkey and bat specifically, then the repeated danger of outbreak will only be curbed when people have a secure food supply. The Vice News segment Monkey Meat and the Ebola Outbreak in Liberia showed that despite a government ban, a whole warehouse of illegal bushmeat was for sale. “If you can’t eat certain kinds of meat,” Jefferson Coleman, a Liberian, said, “you are going to put a lot of people out of business.”

Deforestation is the other element. In the new millennium’s scramble for Africa, huge swaths of forest have been sawed down. Armies of men have cut Guinea’s forest to one-fifth its original size, half of Liberia’s forest has been sold to logging companies and Sierra Leone is at risk of becoming a bald wasteland. As people drive deeper into the woods to mine, log and clear land for crops, human beings become more exposed to bats and monkeys that may have Ebola.

Another social condition worsening the epidemic is that people in fragile states are often deeply suspicious of their governments. Years of struggle for power among ethnic groups has left many governments washed in blood, and without a popular mandate, governments are seen as a tool of the few. When they do have legitimacy, hollowed-out infrastructure systems and endemic corruption make it nearly impossible for health agencies to spread news to people quickly and effectively. And even when they can, they must often do it painstakingly via radio, murals or word of mouth, since the literacy rates in the three hardest-hit countries are so low. In Guinea it is 41 percent, Liberia 60 percent and Sierra Leone 35 percent.

All of this creates a powder keg of fear and rage. Monrovia’s largest slum, West Point, was put in quarantine when Ebola was detected there. When the nearly 80,000 residents woke up to nests of barbed wire and soldiers, they reacted by rioting in the streets, some shouting, “There is no Ebola.”

Finally, in the Global North the neoliberal push for privatizing social services and the market focus on profitable medicines has stalled the search for an Ebola vaccine. In a vicious cycle, government agencies are defunded and then with a skeletal staff are expected to operate fully. When they can’t, the blame is put on them, not the budget cuts. Dr. Frances Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, recently said, “Frankly if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this.”

Dressed like astronauts, doctors and nurses in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are fighting to keep patients from dying. Baking inside their protective gear, they see new waves of sick and panicked people arriving at their doorsteps every day. In the slums, more and more of the dead are found in the streets. And none of this, none of this had to happen.

The Two Faces of Paranoia

“They don’t come close to me anymore. They don’t want to shake my hand,” said Jonathan King, a Liberian in Staten Island, during an NBC interview. Ebola has already hit New York. Not only one case of the virus, but the fear of it.

Nearly every single day the New York Post and Daily News are screaming about Ebola. If it’s not a front page headline exclaiming “Ebola Here!” in reference to infected New York doctor Craig Spencer, it’s about low-paying screener jobs at the airport. The paper joins the rising chorus of right-wing hysteria about the disease propagated by Fox News, the National Review, Rush Limbaugh and so many others. Racial paranoia, sometimes disguised, sometimes overt, runs through their commentary. The common theme is that the first Black president is exposing America to the diseased Global South in revenge for white supremacy.

“Obama doesn’t want America to believe that we’re exceptional. He wants us to be just like everybody else,” said Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative icon who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, in an interview with the right-wing World Net Daily. “If Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too. That’s his attitude.”

The fantasy of Black revenge pulses from the far right to the center-right. Laura Ingraham, a Fox News pundit, said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos that Obama hasn’t banned flights from West Africa due to his “familial connection with Africa.” The Ebola crisis is the site where fears of a rising tide of people of color, engulfing the City on a Hill, is rendered legible and concealed at the same time. The implicit conflict is between the wretched of the Earth and the pristine whites whose skin is the illuminating beacon of civilization.

At the most obscene end, racial paranoia becomes genocidal. “I rather admire the efficiency of Ebola. From a Malthusian and marketing perspective it’s beyond reproach,” said British television personality and weekly Sun columnist Katie Hopkins. Her racial cleansing rhetoric was echoed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France’s far-right party Front National, who advocated Ebola as way to deal with the “population explosion” and France’s “immigration problem.” Mischievously, he said, “Monsieur Ebola could sort that out in three months.”

Plague paranoia runs both ways, going from the privileged to the oppressed and back again. In a bottom-up fantasy of omnipotent evil, one that mirrors the racial paranoia of the right wing, Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, wrote in the Final Call that Ebola was designed to kill Black people.

“What is the method that they [the U.S. government] are going to use to depopulate [the world]?” he asked. Among the tactics he suggests are under consideration is “disease infection through bio-weapons such as Ebola and AIDS, which are race targeting weapons.” He went on to say that it would exterminate Black people but leave whites untouched. Following him, singer and domestic abuse expert, Chris Brown tweeted, “I don’t know … But I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control. S–t is getting crazy bruh.”

In a YouGov poll, 59 percent of African-Americans think more would have been done to fight Ebola if had begun in Europe. Some Black people see it as a terrifying agent of destruction that continues older biological attacks like the Tuskegee Experiment. In it, rural Blacks were given syphilis by the U.S. Department of Health, and then left untreated.

Ebola, deadly as it is, becomes deadlier when viewed through the lens of racial warfare that these two opposing ideologies share. The implications were clearly demonstrated in Nzerekore, a small village in Guinea, when eight aid workers arrived to raise awareness about Ebola. The villagers, scared that the aid workers were bringing the disease, hacked them down with machetes. Their mutilated bodies were found in the latrine days later.

American Cinema and the Plague

“First Ebola Zombie Captured,” shouted the Big American News headline. On the web page, a half-rotted Black man with tangled dreads stared out in hopeless, half-dead agony. It was official. The zombie apocalypse was here.

Of course it was a hoax. The image was doctored. It was a mash-up between a zombie from the film World War Z and a zombie mask sculpture. But not long ago an October 2 ABC report showed a man, thought dead on the streets of Monrovia, be wrapped up by a full-suited burial crew and then begin, limply, to move back to life.

Why is fear so contagious? Ebola will ultimately be contained or tragically burn itself out among the poor. It is not a species threat. And yet the waves of terror sweeping across the world have already moved us rightward, reinforcing a conservative vision across the divide between the Third and First Worlds.

One answer is that we are living in an era of austerity whose drama of scarcity is translated in art through zombie and apocalyptic narratives. The transformation of the living to the rotting, smelly and hungry undead is a representation of the social trauma of people losing their class status and plummeting into poverty. Until the taboo of openly questioning capitalism is finally and fully purged, these cinematic fantasies will bandage that trauma with supernatural imagery.

The zombie apocalypse narrative is currently the dominant fantasy narrative, so when Ebola broke out, it was as if that imaginary world broke into our real one. In a suspension of disbelief, the pandemic we long imagined appeared in news headlines. It’s as if we were suddenly thrown into the series The Walking Dead or Contagion.

The emotional engine of the zombie End Times plot is that we must kill those we love because they’ve changed into the undead. The lesson is that to survive in the new dystopia, we must be cold and cruel enough to kill. After the lights of the film or computer screen fade and we walk outside, the narrative of survival scarcity may become our political response to a world filled with the poor and desperate, until we get infected too.

The Future of Global Health

“Life is rough, and then you die,” Dr. Soka Moses said at the JFK Ebola Treatment Center in Liberia during a CNN interview. “If we don’t do it, who will do it for us? We have to take the risk.”

In the report, a nurse allowed the news crew to fix a camera on his head. Inside the treatment center, a half-conscious man turned on his stretcher, arm flopping out as the nurse injected him with blood. In the hallways, people lay on mats, hovering between life and death. The staff fights to keep them alive, but no matter how much they do, the corpses pile up.

Ebola will come and go but our response will linger long after. It will set the precedent for how we will deal with the next pandemic. And there will be a next one. Climate change is throwing the ecosystem into chaos, our use of antibiotics has hit a wall and more people live in cities and the surrounding slums than at any other time in history. We are all interconnected by trade and travel, yet we live with ossified political and economic structures like the nation and the corporation. It is in a crisis moment like this that our humanity is tested. We don’t have to turn away. We can do what Moses is doing with his patients — put our comfort and safety at risk to recreate that same comfort and safety for many others.

Here, in the Global North, the first step is to turn away from the racialized apocalyptic fantasy and see the humanity of those who are suffering. “Working in a high-risk zone is highly dangerous,” Moses said. “You have so many patients in agony. And you see some patients and they are dying, all you can do is watch them die. You pray for them and hope that something miraculous happens.”