BY MAKAU MUTUA
Rush to get Ebola virus cure is because it has struck at the heart of America By Makau Mutua Updated Sunday, October 19th 2014 at 00:00 GMT +3 Share this story:
In the mind of the West, the “centre” of global civilisation, Africa remains the Dark Continent. It conjures up images of a place writhing in pain. It’s mysterious, dangerous, and full of man-eating pathogens. The most fatal bugs originate there. That’s what they said about Aids. It supposedly came from deep in the Congo jungle. That’s what they said about Ebola, the virus ravaging Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But Ebola has made it to America, and the country is in full panic. Predictions are that at its epicenter in West Africa, the Ebola virus could fell hundreds of thousands by year’s end. Even so, can it truly be said that Ebola is an African disease? There’s a tendency in the West to name dangerous pathogens by their African origin. Ebola is obviously one such case. So is Chikungunya, another virus which manifests itself with Ebola-like symptoms, though it’s not as deadly. Then there’s the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne virus that causes acute fever. These viruses reinforce the idea that Africa is Ground Zero — or the index continent — for explosive diseases. Picture these images of Africa — teeming impoverished urban slums, rural jungles crawling with unknown creatures, and hot deserts which incubate deadly killer flying objects. Hollywood has seared these images in the mind of the West. The African himself — the human person — is almost depicted as a virus in the Western mind. It’s in this context that one must understand America’s fear of Ebola. America’s encounter with the disease was with Dr Kent Brantley, the American doctor who contracted the disease while caring for Ebola patients in Liberia. He was transported from Liberia to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in a specially equipped plane. The protocols used to handle him — with healthcare workers dressed in space suits — helped to deepen the public fear of the virus. In a sense, I thought the latent message was that touching him and his diseased body would’ve been akin to touching sick Africa. The image further alienated Africa from America. It said this — very bad things, like killer pathogens, come out of Africa. Nancy Writebol, an aid worker similarly stricken by Ebola in Liberia, was transported to the US using the same stringent protocols. She was treated at Emory University Hospital and like Dr Brantley has made a full recovery. The degree of care and concern shown for these two Americans was appropriate and expected. Huge expenses were deployed by both the government and private institutions to care for them. That is as it should be. But one could be forgiven for thinking that Dr Brantley and Ms Writebol were, unlike their African Ebola victims, special patients. Those stricken by Ebola in West Africa haven’t received the same degree of care and concern. We must ask why. US President Barack Obama is the only Western leader who has responded to the Ebola crisis in West Africa with urgency. And even he was a little late in realising just how serious the pandemic was. Other wealthy countries in Asia and Europe have at best been timid. One can’t help but think that if Ebola had first broken out in Europe or America, leaders of leading industrial democracies would have been running around with their hair on fire. They would have moved heaven and earth to find a cure or a vaccine. But African lives are expendable — that’s why it’s taken so long to respond. Unfortunately, there’s a racialised hierarchy of human beings in the world. See also: Da Gama Rose's links to the rich and mighty Knock me out if you don’t believe that the feverish response to Ebola now isn’t to save African lives, but to prevent it from reaching the “civilised West.” Containing, or eradicating, the Ebola virus in West Africa isn’t about the plight of Africans, but the fear the disease could strike Western metropoles with devastating results. Imagine an Ebola pandemic in New York or London. It’s totally unthinkable. That’s why the West must hurry up and stop the deadly disease in West Africa. In this script, Africa is an afterthought, not the real story. I wish I was wrong. This is why I believe that Ebola has been racialised although the virus doesn’t have an African human genetic fingerprint. The cabining of diseases and treating them in compartments segregated by identity isn’t new. Diseases that strike women are less likely to attract research and investment in a cure or a vaccine. Diseases that afflict the tropics are similarly overlooked. Malaria is a case in point. Why hasn’t a vaccine been developed for one of the deadliest diseases on the planet? But what policy-makers in wealthy states and powerful pharmaceutical industries must realise is that diseases like Ebola are not genetic to a race of people. Let’s deracialise Ebola.