Ebola and insensitivity

There was major panic when news broke about the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa; and rightfully so. Every channel and headline warned of this deadly virus.

We called to check in on our loved ones overseas. People swore to improve their hygiene and looked to science to find the cure.

Unfortunately, the quiet courtesy did not last. As the days drew on, some took to social media to try their hand at dark comedy.

I understand that we sometimes use humour to deal with dire situations, but it is not our country that is being ravaged by this disease.

We are therefore not in a position to crack jokes about it, especially racially insensitive ones.

There has been no shortage of anti-black and xenophobic sentiment expressed and there is absolutely no reason for it. If you would not joke about cancer or ALS, you don’t have a pass on Ebola.

The hate also bleeds into real life, as black children are being bullied in their schools. A high school boy from Guinea was called “Ebola” and taunted by rivals during a soccer match. Two middle-school brothers in the Bronx were attacked this past month and required medical attention.

If kids are doing this to each other we have a long way to go. What discussions are being had in front of children? This emotional and physical violence is just an extension of the “harmless” jokes we see on social media.

This has all happened before, mind you. The SARS outbreak in the early 2000s prompted unnecessary vitriol against the global Chinese population.

Racism made it easier to generalize the entire race and apply one trait – diseased — to all who fall under the umbrella.

Repeating history just keeps us backwards if we never learn from our mistakes. We’ve seen some reactions from the Liberian community; the hashtag #IamALiberianNotAVirus has Liberians around the world calling out the stigma and insults directed towards them.

It is both heartbreaking and maddening to see people having to defend their humanity. The last thing we need during this crisis is having to deal with insensitive and offensive comments from strangers.

The proliferation of the news has definitely played a part in all this. Fear-mongering headlines and breaking news tweets spread confusion and misinformation.

The threat of such an invisible killer is definitely a recipe for mass hysteria. No, a cough does not mean you have Ebola. And yes, you can hug an international student from West Africa.

Another thing that complicates matters is the paranoia coupled with how little people actually know, or care to know, about Africa.

Quite a lot of people have called to halt trading with Africa. Economically unsound nonsense aside, the outbreak has largely been concentrated on the Western coast.

Even then, some West African countries, for example Nigeria and Senegal, have successfully removed the threat of the disease. It is therefore quite reductive to lump these countries as one entity. Of course, this is to be expected as a lot of people still think of Africa as a single country.

The World Health Organization has reported about 5,000 deaths, but states that the toll could be up to three times higher. With new cases popping up, perhaps it is time to reflect on our mortality and our place in the world.

As we become more connected, we need to act as global citizens. There has been a trend of emotional distancing from events in West Africa.

The fact that we are geographically separated from the outbreak makes it easier to speak out of turn. People’s lives are not stand-up material.

Neither are they ideas for a “sexy” Halloween costume. Dressing up as a victim is not clever or edgy, rather, it is lazy and ignorant. This is a simple test of human decency and a situation like this calls for some maturity. All that is required of us is empathy and support for victims and the bereaved. It is our duty to call out our peers and push forward.

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