Author’s Note: This essay was first written and published five years ago in October of 2014, during the first outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. At that time, a “liberal” black Democrat was President of the United States. This piece analyzes ex-President Obama’s and the Western world’s response to that horrendous disease.
At this writing, a new Ebola outbreak, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is raging once again. Reports indicate that upwards of 3,000 people have been infected, and at least one million more are at risk.
In a subsequent post, I will look at Donald Trump, a white “conservative” president’s response, as well as the rest of the world’s, to this current outbreak. But I thought it important to first understand and recall just exactly how and why the global north has “traditionally” responded to black disease and black death.
A s the Ebola virus has now been confirmed in at least one — and possibly two — people within the US, let’s take a closer look at how this disease has been responded to in the global North and West versus its origination point — West Africa.
Over the last six months, Ebola has killed over 3,000 people and stricken thousands more, primarily in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Although this virus first appeared along the Ebola River in Uganda in 1976, all reputable medical professionals agree that it is spread only through contact with bodily fluids of not simply an infected but a symptomatic person. It cannot spread through the air or by simply touching objects. The symptoms are pronounced and obvious. Fever, fatigue and flu-like conditions are the three chief indicators of possible Ebola infection, and may take take up to three weeks before appearing. Thereafter, severe hemorrhaging from all body orifices begins. Indeed, it is the massive blood loss which actually kills from fifty to ninety percent of Ebola-infected individuals.
Until within the last few weeks, the response to Ebola in West Africa by the West and global North had been one of indifference — indifference to black life and suffering. President Obama has sent troops — but not doctors — to the area to assist in the building or shoring up of medical facilities.
From the moment of this virus’ first appearance in West Africa, clear and consistent efforts to preserve white life, and indifference to black life by the West/North have been glaring, stark, obvious and blatant.
Indeed, it was only when two American white missionaries contracted the disease that most white folks in North America even became aware of the extent of the outbreak. That awareness was prompted because the missionaries were given an experimental drug and flown out of Liberia and back to the US. A third white American was flown to Nebraska for treatment. Latest reports indicate that yet a fourth white American — an NBC newsman — has been spirited out of Liberia and back to the US where he is reportedly doing well.
All the while, African doctors and aid workers were regularly dying from the disease. In mid-September, when the fourth African doctor, Dr. Olivet Buck, chief of the Lumley Health Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone, died of the disease, it was revealed that the World Health Organization had specifically refused to send her to Germany for treatment. Amazingly, however, and at the very same time, two Dutch doctors stricken with Ebola were flown home.
The first African doctor to die of the virus, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, the chief Sierra Leonean physician treating Ebola, was also denied the chance to receive the experimental drug by Doctors Without Borders. This is the same drug given to the two white missionaries, and which apparently saved their lives. As to the US government’s response (under its “first black president”), it initially announced that a $22-million, 25-bed Ebola hospital would be built, but only for foreign (read: white) healthcare workers and patients. Fortunately, outrage forced the US to include African health workers. The point had been made, however: The purpose of the white aid workers and their governments was not to find a cure or even treat the increasing numbers of Africans coming down with Ebola. Their principal purpose was to contain and prevent the spread of this disease outside the continent of Africa.
What we are witnessing is an age-old story when it comes to black life and, indeed, this planet’s second largest continent — Africa. Since the mid-15th century, when the Portuguese and Spanish began their first slave raids against Africa’s West Coast, black life has been disparaged, demeaned and deemed disposable by the global North and West.
The image being fostered and nourished in the North/West is that this is a specifically “black” disease endemic to Africa, and which is if not caused by, it is at least exacerbated by “uncivilized” and black cultural practices. In fact, one white media maven, Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros, has said it out loud: Black peoples’ use of “witch doctors” has impeded the fight against this disease.
This picture of Africans and Africa as a disease-ridden people and place began when those first European slave traders and colonizers mysteriously died in droves almost as soon as they got off their ships in most African ports. Europeans soon learned not to venture too far into the African interior for fear of certain death — usually from the bite of the tste-tste fly and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
For white folks, therefore, Africa was (and remains), not only Jack London’s “Dark Continent,” but a hopelessly diseased continent as well. This characterization of black people and their homeland (despite its apparently limitless wealth in both human and natural resources) has persisted right into the present century and informs white response to the current epidemiological crisis spreading throughout West Africa.
We are also being subjected to the age-old myth of the brave, courageous and true white saviors who risk their lives for African people. This construction harkens back to Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” view of the continent and feeds into what has lately been labeled as the “white savior industrial complex.”
This is a re-packaged meme of black dependency upon white benevolence. However, within it no mention is ever made of the many past and continuing evils perpetrated by white explorers, white discoverers, white conquerors, white colonizers, white imperialists, and white neo-colonizers — from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, and from Dakar to Zanzibar.
As Teju Cole points out in describing the white savior industrial complex, “It supports brutal policies…(where) the banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality.”
And, in a recent interview, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, of Partners in Health, pointed directly to the white racism behind the West’s Ebola response, saying, “I think it’s easy for the world — the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color — to ignore the suffering of poor, black people.”
But even as we watch the in many cases hysterical response of growing numbers of white people to this epidemic, we must understand that this response runs deeper than a mere conscious indifference to black suffering.
Writing in the Black Agenda Report.com, Drs. Hudson and Pierre of the Department of African American Studies at the UCLA, assert that, “(This) is about white supremacy’s desire for Black death and Black suffering. It is about coming to terms with the fact that there is something systematic — and sinister — about Black killing globally. It is about the reality that in a universal context of anti-Blackness, Black lives don’t matter — anywhere.”
Here’s an abbreviated list of other European (and white American) responses to date:
- Brussels. An African man with a nosebleed was reportedly rushed from a shopping mall in July. The store he was in was thoroughly sterilized before he tested negative for the virus.
- The United Kingdom. The body of a woman from the Gambia who died after getting sick following a flight from the Gambia to London, was sequestered until she was tested for Ebola. This despite the fact that she had no symptoms or known contact with anyone with the virus.
- Italy. Some schools have sent out warnings to all students of African origin that they must now submit additional health certificates prior to starting school. No such requests were made of white children, a significant number of whom, had been in Africa on summer-long vacations.
- Voecklabruck, Austria. Two asymptomatic Nigerian men who had just traveled from Nigeria last month, were suspected of carrying Ebola. They were isolated before being released after testing negative for the virus.
- A black woman from Africa collapsed at a business meeting in Berlin recently. German police dispatched more than 60 police officers and firefighters to lock down the building, isolating some 600 people who worked there. The woman, who lives in Berlin and who was rumored to have just returned from Africa a week earlier, along with two others who had come to her aid when she collapsed, were rushed to an isolation ward at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. No one was allowed in or out of the building as armed police stood guard. In the end, she only had a stomach virus. She had not set foot in any of the West African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak. She had, in fact, been in Kenya, a distance of over 3,200 miles from Liberia, “ground zero” of the epidemic. No, it was her African-ness, her blackness, which sparked the frenzy.
- And then there was Air France’s head of the airline’s union Patrick Henry-Haye. He wrote a petition to his employers begging them to stop all airline travel to West African countries affected by the Ebola virus outbreak. That petition set off a frenzy among air travelers. More than 700 Air France crew members, including pilots, have signed the petition. “They say we are trained to spot Ebola,” he told Le Figaro. “That’s false. We’re not trained to do anything other than put on rubber gloves and surgical masks and lock suspected patients in the lavatories. That’s not enough.”
- As things stand now, Air France is the only major European airline still flying directly to the Ebola-affected West African cities of Conakry, Guinea, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Thus, these continuing flights have amped up concern that the epidemic will land in Europe through Air France’s hub in Paris. (For its part, American carrier Delta suspended flights to Monrovia back on August 31.)
- And in the US, with significant help from mainly right-wing media, Liberians in Texas (and Africans nationwide) are reporting increased surveillance and harassment by both authorities and “ordinary” white citizens.
Still, only one person is known to have died in all of Europe from Ebola. That was Father Miguel Pajares, a 75-year-old Catholic priest who had been ministering to Ebola-stricken Liberians in the capital Monrovia. He, like his fellow white helpers, was evacuated to Madrid on August 7 and died August 12, despite being given the experimental drug Zmapp.
Thus, Europeans’ fears of Ebola spreading among them has intensified exponentially. However, rational health officials are attempting to head-off an out-and-out panic: “We need to be prudent without being paranoid,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, last month. Her statement followed an Internet rumor that there were three cases of Ebola on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where many refugees and illegal migrants arrive from North Africa. “It is not fair to assume all black people are potential Ebola carriers. That is blatant racism,” she said.