What's wrong with how the West talks about Ebola?

The Ebola epidemic has killed 3,431 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia; it has killed one in the United States. Liberia's defence minister Brownie Samukai told the UN Security Council in September that the disease poses a "serious threat" to the country's existence.
A possible Ebola patient, believed to be Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Monnig, is brought to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Wednesday in Dallas, Texas. (Net photo)
A possible Ebola patient, believed to be Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Monnig, is brought to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Wednesday in Dallas, Texas. (Net photo)

The Ebola epidemic has killed 3,431 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia; it has killed one in the United States. Liberia’s defence minister Brownie Samukai told the UN Security Council in September that the disease poses a “serious threat” to the country’s existence.

The Obama administration recently reminded everybody that America’s structure would preclude an outbreak. Health care workers are threatening to strike over dissatisfaction with wages; the US sent 3,000 military personnel directly into the area to help combat the epidemic.

The Ebola headlines in Western media outlets, however, don’t tell that story. The Western media circus has lapped up the Ebola epidemic and paraded it around as its newest act.

It’s everywhere you look — stories about “necessary” precautions, tales of children and even police cars under quarantine, fear that the disease has spread to other parts of the country. And it all has one singular focus: America and the West.

André Carrilho, an illustrator and cartoonist based in Lisbon whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and New York magazine, chose to play up this disparity in an August illustration, drawn shortly after two white missionaries stricken with Ebola were admitted to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

“People tend to respond more to illustrations that have a point of view on issues that relate to their lives and their opinions,” he told Mic in an email.

The Ebola epidemic hit a particular nerve with the artist. “People in Africa are more regarded as an abstract statistic than a patient in the US or Europe,” he said.

“How many individual stories do we know about any African patients? None. They are treated as an indistinguishable crowd,” he added.

His point is well taken, given the recent arrival of Thomas E. Duncan, the Dallas patient who became America’s only travel-related case of Ebola.

He came from Liberia, but the media paid scant attention to the country’s experience with Ebola until his arrival in the United States. Carrilho says the colour of Duncan’s skin doesn’t contradict the meaning of the illustration.

“The fact that Duncan is black doesn’t change the fact that because he’s on US soil, he deserves more attention in the eyes of the Western media,” he told Mic. It’s not black vs white in the eyes of the media, but ‘the West vs the rest.’

“A death in Africa, or Asia for that matter, should be as tragic as a death in Europe or the USA, and it doesn’t seem to be,” he said.

Here’s when the world cares about Ebola: According to data from Google Trends, which tracks the popularity of specific topics in the news, the world only really started paying attention to the Ebola epidemic when it involved patients in the US.

The two peaks in this chart occurred during the first week of August and the very beginning of October. They correspond to two key events: the transfer of Ebola-stricken missionaries Ken Brantley and Nancy Writebol to Atlanta and Thomas E. Duncan’s arrival in Dallas. Besides those two events, the ebb and flow (or lack thereof) of Ebola headlines didn’t change: Coverage of the epidemic in West Africa garnered relatively low levels of interest.

The same pattern played on out on Twitter, too. According to social media analytics service Topsy, attention to Ebola only peaked when news broke that the virus landed in the US.

The Western-centric tenor of the news is even clearer in the following GIF, which tracks the explosion of tweets about “Ebola” or #Ebola from Sept. 7 to Oct. 7.

There’s a natural tendency in the news to focus only on things that can or do directly affect your audience. Sure, it’s self-absorbed and reeks of navel-gazing, but that reflects reality. People care largely about themselves, and anyone else is just background noise.

Even still, the sheer increase in the media’s — and by extension, the country’s — attention span when Ebola made its way across the Atlantic is staggering. According to a Pew Research Centre poll, it outranked protests in Hong Kong, the Secret Service’s troubles and airstrikes against ISIS by the US as the story Americans focused on the most.

Thirty-six per cent reported that they paid “very close” attention to the story, up from 25 per cent in mid-August. By comparison, it also eclipsed other outbreak-related stories, including mad cow disease in Europe, MERS in the Middle East and swine flu in Mexico and the US.

“Us” versus “them.” For Carrilho, the nature of the Western media hysteria over Ebola underscores a more pernicious trend in how the West views the rest of the world. More than any other event in recent memory, the Ebola epidemic has brought to light America’s lingering and simmering fear of “the other.”

The media circus is doing more than perpetuating the idea that America may become victim to a deadly epidemic — they’re implying the country’s very purity is at risk.

“In the Western media, there are First World diseases and Third World diseases, and the attention devoted to the latter depends on the threat they pose to us, not on a universal measure of human suffering. We see that logic at play when people tie Ebola to immigration, or insist that the country’s borders get heavily policed for undesirable elements. Ebola is a “Third World disease,” a concept the news industry has capitalised upon and exploited,” Carrilho said.

But what about the difference between the Atlanta and Dallas cases? The arrival of two white, Christian missionaries with Ebola in Atlanta in early August also triggered a fair amount of hysteria, but it wasn’t nearly as intense as that which surrounded Duncan’s.

It’s impossible to know exactly why this is, but there are some unsettling patterns that run through the Duncan coverage which only reinforce the divide between “the West and the rest.”

The Dallas patient was a foreigner, which made him far more suspect than missionaries Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly, who were lily-white, born and bred Americans. There were suggestions that we should fear him and accusations that he knowingly got on the plane in order to seek treatment in America.

For the Western media, Duncan is an outsider, a plague-bearer to be vilified rather than a victim of a deadly and horrifying disease. He’s filthy and unclean, and he’s brought contamination to the United States.

We can see this clearly on Fox News, where Andrea Tantaros parroted the idea that African countries “do not believe in traditional medical care” and that residents might “seek treatment from a witch doctor that practices santería.”

Congressman Phil Gingrey suggested that we should fear migrants because they might carry “deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis, while CNN suggested Ebola is the “ISIS of biological agents.” (It’s no coincidence that both are “foreign” entities.)

In this context, then, there were two things at play when the “Dallas patient” arrived in Texas, and two things that precipitated the media circus: Duncan’s “otherness” — his distinction from normal Americans as an African— and the introduction of this otherness into our immaculate country.

Had he remained in Liberia, he would have become yet another faceless victim. Had he looked like Writebol and Brantly, he would never have been subjected to the same kind of fear-mongering. Duncan, however, did neither of these things, and that’s precisely why the media honed in to the degree it has.

It doesn’t matter that West Africa has now lost more than 3,400 people to the disease. It is, and always will be, all about us.

Editor: Duncan died of Ebola on Wednesday.

This article was first published in World Mic.