The first time I remember hearing about Ebola was in 1996, which just so happened to coincide with the Olympic summer games which were in Atlanta, my hometown. I was only 11 years old, so my understanding and attention I paid to Ebola, formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, was minimal. As a child, I simply didn’t care.
The particular Ebola outbreak I’m referencing, as there have been several since the disease’s first emergence in 1976, occurred in the central African country of Gabon, bordered by Cameroon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea, in 1996. A film preceded it-Outbreak, starring Morgan Freeman, Patrick Dempsey and Cuba Gooding Jr. It was one of those horrible, sensationalized movies which muddled scientific facts, caused a palpable sense of fear and unfortunately, for many, became an unreliable reference point to where we are now.
In the past few months as Ebola has affected the west African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, I’ve watched slews of ignorant banter on social media— Facebook, Twitter and yes, even memes on Instagram — ensue with a sense of hysteria, the same hysteria which accompanied those who naively watched “Outbreak” in the 90s and upheld it as scientific gospel. I’ve seen people I previously respected give commentary on why those aid workers who risked their lives to help those in need affected by Ebola should “stay where they are” and cowered in fear once it was reported they were transported back to the States to receive much needed treatment to become well again.
I’ve held my opinions close to my chest, part composure, part not knowing how to feel, how to properly articulate my anger, sadness and mass of complicated feelings. For me, as a Nigerian American woman, this isn’t just another health scare which will blow up news waves for months on end then disappear from headlines once no one really cares anymore.
This is personal.
There’s the stress and the distant sense of worry which I can do very little to resolve. I have aunts and cousins in Lagos, Nigeria. Each morning when I wake up and am bombarded by the growing number of deaths due to this disease, I wonder if a family member will be next. I wonder each day if they’re safe or if they’ve succumbed to any of the telltale symptoms of the disease’s presence in a human body. But there’s nothing I can do except maybe pray and hope for the best.
There’s the anger which seems never-ending and snowballing with each insensitive tweet, loaded news headline and rant from those committed to giving the face of Ebola a racist spin. Most recently was a tweet from the Associated Press which identified an Ebola patient in Madrid, Spain as a “Africa patient” which sent me over the edge.
As an African woman, it’s frustrating and disheartening to constantly feel as if mainstream media and even Black Americans are committed to painting Africa as the golden land where all of us are lumped together in one category, who aren’t even deserving of designation of country origin. Never mind that Africa is a vast continent with 53 countries, people with different experiences and representations of culture, language, tradition and food. Nothing about Africa is as simplistic to portray it as a monolithic existence.
It’s also downright infuriating and insulting to continuously typecast the Africans who have been infected with Ebola as mere nameless, voiceless, to be pitied carriers of the disease, with no extension of the respect each and every human should receive. These are people, people who are living and breathing, not sick monsters who are to be feared, cast out and treated as insignificant and unimportant. Will we ever know their stories?
Ebola is not an African issue. It’s not a disease “over there” which any of us can afford to be silent or ignorant about. It’s a serious world health problem and a humanitarian crisis. It is something which can have a ripple effect if not handled properly, if the prejudice, racism and bias to the brown faces it is mostly affecting aren’t discarded.
But we’ve seen this already play out at least once very publicly — the ignorance, the insensitive comments, the othering — in the treatment of Thomas Eric Duncan, who was from Liberia.
I choose to think of Duncan as a person. A human being. A person who had family and friends. Someone who had hobbies and things he liked to do. Someone who had a story. He was someone who while alive was deserving of respect and common decency and someone, who I hope, in the memory of his death, will be afforded the same.
I hope you can join me in thinking of him in this way, too.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC.