Consuming Ebola: Media, Myth, and Madness

There is an enduring and guttural fear surrounding the Ebola virus: its symptoms are gruesome, its onset is sudden and there is no known cure. Moreover, (to quote the infamous Thomas Friedman article generator) in today’s increasingly connected world, containing a contagion is like trying to keep sand in a sieve.

Media coverage of the epidemic (as you may have noticed) has been heavy, especially as isolated cases of the virus move from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to Western Europe and the US. The frenzied tone of the coverage is at once understandable and entirely inappropriate: one the one hand, an Ebola case in New York City is the kind of story that is guaranteed to draw eyes, ears and cursors. One the other hand, the coverage has been intensely problematic on a number of fronts: it has been racist, with coverage directed away from the 5,000 African lives claimed by the disease and toward the one American life lost; it has been sensationalistic, with overblown accounts of the virus’s transmissibility; it has been exploited and molded by political actors with divergent ends, from closed borders to presidential campaigns. In short, it’s more of the same kind of yellow journalism that has been stirring up xenophobia, nationalism and political opportunism since the days of the Spanish-American War.

It’s not that media coverage of the media coverage has been lacking; indeed it has been almost as thick as the media coverage of the outbreak itself. Criticism has poured in from all sides (as well as criticism of the criticism). It’s not even that the reporting on the reporting has been bad—some of it recognizes and identifies the racism and xenophobia inherent in media coverage of the epidemic, and hopefully this kind of reporting will introduce a modicum of sanity into the conversation surrounding both the virus itself and the news coverage it receives. There are, however, two points that do bear further emphasis here: first, we need to do a better job of situating the racism of the media’s coverage of the Ebola epidemic in the long history of Western depictions of Africa; second, we need to do a better job of recognizing the ways in which our consumption of these narratives without contextualization reproduces and reinforces the web of colonial relationships between Africa and the West.

To the first point: the racism inherent in the coverage of this epidemic is neither new nor unique to this epidemic. It is part of a longstanding Western tradition of treating Africa as diseased and Africans as inept, savage, and generally subhuman. We need only to look at the cover of Newsweek’s August 29, 2014 edition to see how the media views Africa and Africans: it consists of a photo of a chimpanzee and the headline: “A Back Door for Ebola: smuggled bushmeat could spark a US epidemic.” As Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne point out in an excellent post for the Washington Post, the image of a chimpanzee is just another instance in a long and sordid history of treating non-white people as subhuman (see Seay and Dionne’s piece for a longer history of pseudo-scientific justifications for colonialism). It is this racism that has led us first to ignore the disease (did you realize this outbreak has been going on since April?), then to panic over it. It is this racism that leads us to continue to cover the single US fatality from Ebola in such greater depth than the nearly 5,000 African fatalities. It is this racism that leads us to pathologize the entire African continent, to call for closed borders and unnecessary quarantines.

To the second point: we need to do a better job interrogating our consumption of racist narratives surrounding the Ebola epidemic. The consequences of our internalization of these narratives are dire: the unquestioned reproduction of paternalistic colonial relationships between Africa and the West. The ease with which media outlets portray Africa as a monolithic, helpless continent inhabited by savages is only one half of the story; the other half is how our (tacit) acceptance of this narrative leads us to accept the presence of the 3,900 US military personnel in West Africa, and to not question the underlying relationships that make such humanitarian missions necessary. That is to say, we have grown so used to the idea of Africa as everything the US is not (dirty, starving, dangerous, poor, diseased, helpless) the veracity of these claims. We accept Africa as a problem needing to be solved while interrogating neither the solution nor the root of the problem. For as long as we continue to consume the provided narrative of the Ebola epidemic without situating it within the broader matrix of coloniality we are continuing to reinforce our long help racist notions about Africa, as well as supporting the continuation of imperialistic and paternalistic policies toward the continent.

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