In the current context of increasing xenophobia, conflated with Afrophobia and Islamophobia, escaping the racial dimension of the ebola epidemic is a catch 22 situation. Evidence is increasingly pointing to a growing collective hysteria about ebola, which fuels ongoing anti-migrant debates. The risk is that it will lead to acts of scapegoating, racial profiling, segregation or even physical violence towards People of African Descent and Black Europeans.
Over the last couple of weeks, ebola has reached the shores of America and Europe, starting to stir forms of panic grounded in racism. In France, a black man suspected of having ebola was quarantined by policemen for two hours in front of the train station in Grenoble on 1 October. The man - publicly humiliated - was eventually declared ebola-free. In Austria, the Red Cross has warned that black people are being unnecessarily stigmatised because of fears of an ebola outbreak. Examples include black children being sent home from school if they have a cough, or neighbours panicking if a black person in their apartment block complains of a fever. It has also been exploited by the far right Front National politician Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, who stated in May this year that ebola could be a solution to curb immigration to Europe.
This comes in a context of great interrogations regarding drug and medical aid delivery to affected regions. The speedy provision of health care to two white American aid workers returning from Liberia raises the question of why it is not possible to have the same efficiency when it comes to people infected by the deadly virus in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Guinea and the Republic of Congo. Is colour, wealth and privilege part of the reason?
Europe already faced large-scale precedents of violence against particular groups because of fears of pandemics, such as during the 14th Century plague that led to the beginning of pogroms against Jews. More recently, bigoted rhetoric has induced fears of diseases brought by Hispanic immigrants to the US. History has also shown racial bias and discrimination in providing medical support to specific ethnic groups, leading to an overrepresentation of minorities with certain diseases such as AIDS. Reports demonstrate that national responses to the AIDS epidemic in minority communities have been slow. Obviously, Western white majority societies are not immune to racial drifts when it comes to dealing with epidemics.
It has been predicted that there will be more cases of ebola in Europe and the US in the coming months. We urge public and health authorities, as well as political leaders and media to be responsible in their use of language and sound bites when communicating and reporting on ebola. They should avoid using language that stigmatises migrants and people of African descent in particular. They should also ensure that all European citizens and residents alike will benefit from an equal access to health services and drugs.
The spread of ebola - and its containment - is a collective human responsibility that goes beyond racial, gender and class divides. European States should ensure equal access to health care in order to preserve social cohesion and avoid a deterioration of the situation.