Sarah Monson. Africa Today. Volume 63, Issue 3. Spring 2017.
This virus is not being caused by Africa.
~ Fatu Gayflor
We are Africans. We don’t have Ebola as a continent.
~ Sheriff Bojang
Before the 2014 Ebola outbreak, with perhaps the exception of Boko Haram and the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping in Nigeria in April 2014, West Africa was not on most Americans’ radar. In late 2014, however, (West) Africa became synonymous with Ebola (Opar 2014). Although the first patient from the 2014 Ebola outbreak to contract the virus was documented in March 2014 (Healthmap.org 2016), stories of Ebola did not saturate mainstream news until late summer 2014, when Dr. Kent Brantly, who had contracted Ebola in West Africa, arrived in the United States for treatment. Soon after, Thomas Duncan, a Liberian who had traveled to Dallas to visit his family, was diagnosed with Ebola, from which he later died. These events sparked immediate panic and a rapid succession of news stories, such as “Close to Home: First Case of Ebola Diagnosed in U.S.” (Fox 2014) and “American Nurse with Protective Gear Gets Ebola: How Could This Happen” (Yan 2014). The language in these headlines-“Close to Home” and “How Could This Happen”-captures brewing anxiety about an Ebola outbreak in the United States and sends a metamessage: Ebola is foreign, it is other, and it should never have entered US territory, because, it is African. Once it did, however, Americans paid attention.
The US news media tapped into Americans’ fear and conceptualization of Ebola as “other,” “scary,” and “African” and riled them up with round-the-clock coverage of the virus, fearmongering headlines, and frightening images of doctors in white protective suits and quarantined patients. A discourse of crisis and panic ensued, including how one contracts the virus, who were to blame for its transmission, and fear of widespread transmission. Stories of subsequent (and even suspected) Ebola patients rapidly circulated, some even going so far as to trace people’s day-to-day movements (Fox News 2014; Tangel 2014), which continued to feed into anxiety that an Ebola pandemic might occur in the United States (BBC News 2014). I argue that such stories became the catalyst for otherization-the process of positioning, explicitly or implicitly, a particular group of people as “other” and differentiating between “them” and “us” (Afshar 2013; Besteman 1996; Joye 2010; Petros et al. 2006; Saeed 2007). Often, “the other” is not perceived as neutral or benign, but as a threat to what is perceived as normal. In the American media discourse of Ebola, Africa became the homogenized other, leading to the explicit discrimination and stigmatization of Africans currently living in the United States and those returning from West Africa, including non-Africans. Homogenization and otherization processes are not always obvious, unless made explicit as in the New York Times headline “New York Doctor, Back from Africa, Is Sick with Ebola” (Santora 2014, added emphasis), but occur below the surface via the metamessages of news headlines, and become manifest in people’s attitudes, reactions, and behavior.
This article examines Ebola-as-African and related discourses stemming from American mainstream news and social media coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak from late July to December 2014. Pertinent data come from major US news and social media sites; ethnographic interviews with medical personnel, scholars, and African nationals; and participant observation of public panels on Ebola hosted by Indiana University, Bloomington, and the African Studies Association. Using virtual ethnographic methods and applying a Foucauldian approach to discourse, I investigate how the US media created and perpetuated discourses of panic and otherization, which led to instances of discrimination and stigmatization. That news media contribute to fear and panic of disease, pandemics, terrorism, and so forth, is not a new observation (Altheide 2007; Angeli 2012; Chiang and Duann 2007; Levina 2014; Saeed 2007; de Silva Medeiros and Massarani 2010; Van den Bulck and Custers 2009). The emergence of an “Ebola hysteria” in the United States (Ahmed and Mendoza 2014; Baker 2014) is not the first time the media have been accused of fearmongering (Altheide 1997; Glassner 2004; Klemm and Hartmann 2016; Korstanje and George 2016; Lehner 1993; Towers et al. 2015). However, I argue that the discourse surrounding the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which was steeped in fear, led to the othering of Africa, Africans, and those returning from Africa. Such otherization had real-life and, in some cases, traumatizing consequences. The narratives of “Ebola is African,” “Ebola is all over Africa,” and “Africa is a country” were the root of this process. The Ebola-is-African theme is unsurprising, given the long history of associating Africa with disease (Yi Dionne and Seay 2016); moreover, the Africa-is-a-country trope is not new. These themes resurfaced during the 2014 Ebola outbreak only when the possibility of an Ebola threat to the United States emerged, and they have implications for future instances of panic-driven otherization by the media.
In the first section, I discuss and operationalize the concepts of discourse and virtual ethnography. Next, I review previous pandemics in the media and moments of media-fed panic. I then discuss how the Ebola virus is transmitted and where it spread during the 2014 outbreak, and examine moments of ambiguity in the narrative about it. I then examine the turning point in the US media coverage of it-which I call a discourse of panic. Following that section, I consider how discourses of panic engendered processes of otherization, which exposed underlying narratives of Ebola as “African” and “other.” I continue by discussing how the process of otherization manifested itself through discrimination and stigmatization. In the final section, I consider marginalized or unheard voices that challenge the otherizing narratives.
Discourse and Virtual Ethnography
Between May and July 2014, I was in West Africa conducting predissertation research. When I returned to the United States, in late July 2014, the American mainstream news media were beginning to cover the Ebola outbreak with greater frequency and alarm. I noticed a shift in the language of the headlines-from the neutral reporting of a rare but deadly virus occurring across the Atlantic Ocean to emotion-laden descriptions of a rapidly spreading fatal virus on the brink of a US pandemic. The reframing of the virus was an important moment in discourse about it. I use the term discourse in a twofold way: in the linguistic sense, to refer to spoken and written language surrounding the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and in a Foucauldian sense, meaning discourse writ large. As linguist Barbara Johnstone argues, “discourse is both the source of … knowledge … and the result of it” (2007:3). In this sense, I argue that talk about Ebola is not one-directional, in which the news media produce the headlines and the readers simply consume them; rather, it is a set of discursive and intertextual (Briggs and Bauman 1992) processes with multiple participants, who construct the framing of a particular event. It is an amalgamation of the dissemination of information, reactions and interpretations, reproductions, criticisms, and contestations. It is in this vein that I apply a Foucauldian (1995 , 1980) approach to discourse, one that examines larger patterns of knowledge production and power, because certain voices-patterned narratives and metamessages-commanded attention and held legitimacy in the wider American narrative, at the expense of others. I apply a discourse analysis of mainstream American news headlines from late July to December 2014, to show how the language used in the media both influenced and reflected Americans’ perceptions of Ebola and (West) Africa. My argument is not that mainstream media are the sole instigators of public panic, nor do I contend that the media merely reflect existing panic: instead, I argue that the (re)production of discourse is multidirectional, and the mainstream media tapped into existing biases, fears, and ignorance about Ebola and Africa. The consumption and reproduction of Ebola-related discourse in the United States influenced attitudes and behaviors toward Africans currently living in the United States, as well as toward people returning from Africa, with sometimes devastating consequences.
In addition to discourse analysis, this study utilizes “virtual ethnography” (Hine 2008) to analyze online news and social media discourses, alternatively and similarly referred to as “virtual ethnography of new media communication” (Modan 2016), “social media ethnography” (Postill and Pink 2012), “ethnographic studies of digital media” (Coleman 2010), “Internet ethnography” (Hine 2000), the “anthropology of online communities” (Wilson and Peterson 2002), and “hashtag ethnography” (Bonilla and Rosa 2015). Virtual ethnography and related approaches-a growing methodological framework-apply participant-observation to the virtual realm. The ethnographic site is not bound by geography but constructed across time and space, and in the case of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, was created around a particular media or Internet event (Hine 2000:50; Postill and Pink 2012:123). Just as cultural anthropologists use participant-observation of inperson human behavior to understand cultural ideologies and social patterns, virtual ethnography “involves traversing interrelated digital and co-present contexts” (Postill and Pink 2012:131) to examine discourse about a particular topic or event. While virtual ethnography is applied to the analysis of individual voices speaking on larger issues (as via hashtags, Twitter threads, and online article commentaries), I take virtual ethnography beyond individual threads and discussions and apply it to larger patterns of discourse in mainstream and social media. This article, then, applies a virtual ethnographic framework to analyze discourse writ large, encompassing online and offline dialog-not as separate platforms of text, but as interwoven and dynamic processes.
Media Pandemics and the 2014 Ebola Outbreak
Sensational media coverage of pandemics and disease is not new (see Tomes 2000 for a historical overview of “germ panic” in the United States, with particular attention to tuberculosis and AIDS). In 1997, the first cases of the H5N1 avian influenza virus were documented in Hong Kong, but news media stories of the so-called bird flu did not gain hype status until 2005, when the virus was detected in European poultry (Hellsten and Nerlich (2010:394). The threat of the virus triggered in Europeans a fear of a human influenza pandemic, which occurred only when the virus entered Europe. In April 2009, H1N1, a strain of human influenza “nicknamed” “swine flu,” was first documented near pig farms in Mexico. A rapid succession of news stories and growing fear of a pandemic led people to attribute correlation (and later inaccurate causation) to pigs and H1N1. Media-driven hysteria and misunderstanding of the epidemiology of H1N1 led to massive slaughters of pigs in Egypt (Youssef 2009)-later acknowledged as a misguided, impulsive move (Stack 2009). It also led to the stigmatization of Latino immigrants as potential carriers of the disease (McCauley et al. 2013). The media coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak unfolded similarly, in three ways: the Western world showed concern only after the arrival of the virus in the West; the fear of a pandemic led to misinformed and irrational behavior; and sensational media coverage contributed to scapegoating and the linking of disease with race, the “other,” and minority populations (Adeyanju and Oriola 2010; Murdocca 2003). Some discourse studies of pandemics and the media show that people have become conditioned to distinguish between factual and sensational information (Briggs and Nichter 2009), but the present study of the 2014 Ebola outbreak shows that the media still strongly influence public perception and behavior, perpetuating fear, othering, and discrimination, primarily due to the consumption of “pandemedia” (Davis et al. 2014:514).
Ebola Transmission and Medical Ambiguity
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define Ebola as “a rare and deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains.” Ebola was first reported in 1976 near the Ebola River in Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), with sporadic outbreaks in Africa since. The 2014 Ebola outbreak, however, was the largest in history. Despite reported cases in other countries (Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, United States, Mali, the UK, Italy, and the DRC), it was primarily concentrated in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 28,616 cases of Ebola, 11,310 deaths, and more than 10,000 survivors. Despite the high death rate, Ebola is difficult to contract because it is spread through bodily fluids or objects that have been contaminated with them (CDC 2015). Symptoms, such as fever, begin two to twenty-one days after the initial infection. Once a person becomes symptomatic, he or she is contagious, but people are not infectious before the onset of severe symptoms. This medical fact was not widely understood, even by policymakers, and generated misguided fear.
The arrival of the first Ebola patient in the United States instigated widespread fear of an Ebola pandemic-which the media fed and perpetuated (Peart 2014). This fear emerged, in part, from a lack of understanding the science of its transmission (Jacobson 2015). In fairness, however, inconsistency of opinion among medical professionals about the likelihood that the virus would mutate to become airborne (Osterholm 2014) and ambiguity regarding exactly when a patient is Ebola-free are also to blame for public uncertainty and fear. For instance, Ian Crozier, an American doctor, contracted Ebola in September 2014 but was released from Emory University Hospital the following month after testing negative for the virus. Months later, he developed muscular pain, stiffness, hearing loss, and temporary blindness in one eye. He returned to Emory and learned that the virus was active in his left eye (Mazumdar 2015). Subsequent studies revealed that the virus can persist in humans-for example, in semen-long after they are declared Ebola-free (Deen et al. 2015), raising the question whether Ebola can still be transmitted long after an Ebola survivor recovers. Crozier’s experience illuminates ambiguity surrounding Ebola transmission, even in the medical community. This ambiguity, coupled with public misunderstanding of Ebola transmission, created a discordance between rational and panic-driven responses and behaviors.
Discourse of Panic
The arrival of the first two Ebola patients on US soil marked a shift in American media interest, which changed from covering the Ebola outbreak as a “newsworthy but exotic disease” to covering it as “an international security threat” (Wilkinson and Leach 2014:3). The shift came on the heels of the WHO’s official declaration of Ebola as “a public health emergency of international concern” (2014b). Joshua Mugele, MD, an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at Indiana University, was at the JFK Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, when the first Ebola patient was admitted (Davis 2014). According to him, before the arrival of the first Ebola patient in the United States, the US media conveyed an undertone of condescension regarding Africans’ responses to the outbreak. He recalls stories of Ebola survivors’ blood being sold in the black market (Karimi 2014), attacks on Ebola health teams (Aljazeera 2014), and stories of Africans not trusting Western medicine (Ngong 2014). Such stories, steeped in otherization, paint Africans as ignorant and misrepresent what was actually happening. “I don’t disagree with the news stories or think they were false,” Mugele states. “I think the impression the Western world got from press reports such as those was that West Africa was a very backwards place.” Ironically, as the outbreak progressed, it was Americans who were ignorant of how the virus is transmitted. Dr. Mugele explains:
The irony is that once Ebola came to the US (and Western Europe), we had a lot of similar “ignorant” responses. For example, we quarantined healthcare workers coming back from those countries who were displaying no symptoms. There were stories about people who wouldn’t let their children play with the children of nurses working in Ebola units. There was a lot of fearmongering associated with Ebola in the US, which I think taps into the same fear and ignorance that was reflected in a lot of the same stories about West Africa.
Part of the ignorance and hysteria stems from the media’s misrepresentation of transmission and risk. One way the American media fueled the fear of a massive outbreak is by tracing the movements of those who were diagnosed in the United States. Dr. Mugele explains, “We know every single detail of every single movement of everyone who has Ebola,” such as the US doctor who went bowling a week before showing symptoms. When Dr. Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, the media frantically began tracing and broadcasting his every move leading up to his diagnosis (ABC News 2014; Tangel 2014). Spencer was the fourth American to receive an Ebola diagnosis in the United States; Duncan, Pham, and Vinson had preceded him. Fear of a possible contagion in New York City led to the closure of the bowling alley Spencer had visited just before his diagnosis (Engel 2014). A similar media response occurred when Amber Vinson, the nurse who had treated Thomas Duncan, flew on a commercial airline a day before she became symptomatic (Garza and Wade 2014). This news led to anxiety about whether one can catch Ebola by sharing the same flight with someone who has it (Kelly 2014). As with Dr. Spencer, the news media reported Vinson’s previous movements-which triggered more fear for those who had interacted with her before her diagnosis, such as the Cleveland TSA officer who had patted her down at the airport (Feran 2014), and led to contact tracing.
Widespread fear of a pandemic led to irrational behavior. An unnamed teacher was put on a twenty-one-day leave after traveling to Dallas to attend a conference held ten miles from the hospital where Thomas Duncan had been treated for Ebola (Byrne 2014). Louisville Catholic schoolteacher Susan Sherman resigned after returning from a mission trip to Kenya when parents’ concerns that their children might get Ebola resulted in the school’s pressuring her to take a “precautionary leave,” although Kenya had no cases of Ebola (Ross 2014). Similarly, some parents pulled their children out of a Mississippi school when they learned that its principal had traveled to Zambia, an African country completely unaffected by Ebola (Steinhauer 2014).
By mid-October 2014, following Thomas Duncan’s death and Pham and Vinson’s Ebola diagnosis, public concern was growing regarding the spread of Ebola from passengers returning from (West) Africa. Around the same time, discussions about imposing a travel ban surfaced in the media. Unlike some countries, the United States did not institute a travel ban, but it did require those traveling from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone to fly through one of five airports equipped with Ebola-screening capability (Bennett 2014; Roberts 2014). Despite arguments against travel bans, some people, including Donald Trump, favored them (Dausey 2014). Adding to the frenzy and reifying the Ebola-is-all-over-Africa and Africa-is-a-country narratives were comments such as Trump’s tweet on October 2, 2014: “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights.”
Circulating alongside the more dominant voices of fear were social media memes and editorial cartoons, which served to expose and mock Americans’ unfounded fears and ignorance. One such cartoon depicts an overweight man with a cigarette in his mouth holding a bacon cheeseburger in one hand and a can of beer in the other (Ohman 2014). The cartoon challenges Americans’ anxiety about dying from Ebola when the probability of dying from obesity, tobacco, or alcohol abuse is much higher. Motivated by frustration after hearing about the Kentucky woman quarantined after her trip to Kenya, Anthony England posted a “No Ebola” map of Africa for the “geographically challenged” on Twitter (see fig. 2). England’s map juxtaposes the three African countries where the Ebola outbreak was most prevalent against the rest of the continent that does not. Such discourses challenged the recurring narratives of panic, yet they were not enough to prevent the processes of otherization that such discourses produced.
Otherization: Discourses of Ebola as African, Other
On October 20, 2014, a nurse at Howard R. Yocum Elementary school in Maple Shade, New Jersey, circulated a letter to parents and teachers informing them of “two students that are arriving to school from Rwanda, Africa,” and that although Rwanda “is not an area identified as a country with an Ebola outbreak,” the nurse would take the students’ temperatures three times a day for twenty-one days, “per the health guidelines of the Burlington County Health Department” (Chang 2014). The letter frightened its recipients: teachers threatened not to work and parents contemplated pulling their children from school. In response to the fear and concern, the Rwandan parents ultimately decided to quarantine their children at home for three weeks. (Napoliello 2014). In an interview with Philadelphia’s Fox 29 after the Rwandan students had been quarantined for three weeks, one parent exemplified otherization when he allegedly said, “Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There’s nobody affected here; let’s just keep it that way” (Vankin 2014, emphasis added). The deixis markers “that area,” “there,” and “here” are mechanisms that can produce otherization. “That area” implies difference, distance, and a boundary that should be heeded. By labeling the Rwandan students as African, this parent associates Ebola with Africa, implicating them as potential Ebola carriers. When he says “that area,” he is not referring to Rwanda, or even East Africa, but Africa as a whole, reifying the Ebola-is-all-over-Africa and Africa-is-acountry themes. Moreover, although the race of this parent is unknown, his language follows what anthropologist Adia Benton calls the “racial immunelogic” (Benton 2014). The logic behind the statement “Anybody from that area should just stay there” implies that people over there (that is, Africans) are supposed to get sick and die. By the same logic, the statement “there’s nobody affected here” implies that nobody in the United States should be affected.
Contributing to the otherization process is that the United States and other national governments except China and Cuba (Lewis 2014; Taylor 2014b) were slow to respond to the outbreak. In a BBC interview, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the lack of response (BBC Newsnight 2014):
If the crisis had hit some other region, it probably would have been handled very differently. And in fact, when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe.
As Kofi Annan states, the West showed little concern for the devastating effects of Ebola in West Africa until Americans and Europeans were becoming infected. The West’s slow response to Ebola can be interpreted much like the parent’s statement above: Ebola happens to those people over there; when it happens at home, it becomes our problem. This suggests that Africa is still a place of inconsequence for most of the global North, or the Western world. So why the lack of response? Why the discourse of otherization? Columnist for CNN Opinion John Sutter (2014) says “a lack of empathy is at play.” Responding to Kofi Annan’s interview, he states,
It’s hard not to agree that race and geography do play a role in the world’s callousness. They help explain why “some other region”-any other region, really-would get more help … Too many people panic when Ebola hits Dallas but shrug at the gruesome reality in Monrovia.
Like Annan, he suggests that if Ebola had hit the United States sooner, the international response would likely have been quicker and stronger. The implication-that it is normal for thousands of Africans to die from Ebola in Africa, but it is not normal for Americans to do so-fuels the processes of otherization.
Another contributing factor engendering a discourse of “other” is the media’s use and portrayal of the term culture: “while anthropologists introduced ‘culture’ into the public debate over managing the Ebola crisis to change medical practice, the mainstream media often tended to use ‘culture’ in ways that represented those communities as the West’s quintessential, abject Other” (Morris 2015:542). This argument references a cover story by Newsweek, featuring a chimpanzee and the headline “Smuggled Bush Meat Is Ebola’s Back Door to America” (Flynn and Scutti 2014; see also Brantuo 2014). This article portrays smuggled “African bushmeat” as a potential Ebola carrier and a threat to the United States. It was severely criticized at the time (Benton 2014; McGovern 2014; Murphy 2014; Seay and Dionne 2014), for both its racializing association of primates with Africans, and its depiction of bushmeat, a West African delicacy, which the article calls a cultural touchstone. Americans also consume bushmeat, but call it venison (Seay and Dionne 2014) and game (McGovern 2014). Referring to the consumption of bushmeat as cultural but framing it as exotic, dirty, devious, and “other” perpetuates the “Dark Continent Myth” of Africa (Keim 2014:15) and reinforces xenophobia toward Africans and African immigrants (Dionne and Seay 2015).
It would be unfair to claim homogenization of the language of news headlines across all major newspapers and networks or argue that they all otherize in the same ways. Indeed, differences in rhetorical styles reflect differing ideologies and readerships, but a comparison of news headlines requires a linguistic and critical discourse analysis, which is not the goal of this article. When New York City doctor Craig Spencer tested positive for Ebola, on October 23, 2014-the height of Ebola panic and media coverage in the United States-all the major networks and newspapers covered it. Many even publicized a time line tracing Spencer’s movements before his diagnosis, with maps and a list of places he visited. Both the New York Times and Fox News (to cite two ideologically opposing examples) did this. It seems not to have mattered which news agency published which headline, or who was the first to produce a particular string of discourse (such as Spencer’s time line). Instead, it mattered that the concept was being reproduced and recirculated in a discursive process.
Consequences of Otherization: Stigmatization
When fears began circulating about a possible outbreak in the United States after the death of Thomas Duncan and the confirmed diagnoses of his nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, stories of discrimination toward Africans surfaced. The two elementary school students who had relocated from Rwanda to New Jersey was one example. The school district later apologized for generating an Ebola panic, but failed to apologize for stigmatizing the children. The same month, a sixteen-year-old boy originally from Guinea but living and attending school in Pennsylvania was taunted by opposing players at a soccer game (Molinet 2014). The opponents chanted “Ebola” at him, provoking a fight among the players and ultimately resulting in the opponent’s removal from the game. Days later, the opposing team’s coaches resigned.
Fatu Gayflor, a Liberian woman living in the United States and a member of the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, explained that on tour, another singer had not wanted to touch a microphone after Gayflor had used it and suggested that it be sanitized. Since then, Gayflor has been bringing her own microphone to performances, and before each show, she tells the audience she is Liberian but has been living in the United States since 1999 and has not hosted any family or visitors from West Africa. People like Gayflor, aware of American stereotypes of Africans since the Ebola outbreak, preemptively reassure others that they do not have Ebola and have not recently been to, or interacted with, people from, Ebola-stricken countries. Furthermore, because of the Ebola panic, African residents feel pressured to quarantine themselves, as did the Rwandan schoolchildren in New Jersey.
Panic-induced discrimination toward people also applies to those returning from (West) Africa. Even American citizens suffered this discrimination: Kentucky teacher Susan Sherman was quarantined after her mission trip to Kenya, and parents pulled their children from a Mississippi school when its principal returned from Zambia. A more publicized case was that of Kaci Hickox, a nurse held in an isolation tent for three days at a New Jersey airport after returning from Sierra Leone, where she had treated Ebola patients with Doctors Without Borders (Bacon 2014). Upon her release, she went home to Maine, and although she did not show any symptoms, the state of Maine ordered her to observe a twenty-one-day quarantine-which she fought in court, arguing that the mandate was political, not grounded in science. She won a court order and has since filed a lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and state health officials (Johnson 2015). Ebola chants, mandatory and preemptive self-quarantines, and resignations illustrate how internalizing Ebola discourses of panic and otherization resulted in damaging behavior, particularly toward Africans and African immigrants living in the United States.
Challenging Otherization: Unheard Voices
In December 2014, South African comedian Trevor Noah made a guest appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. They opened with the following dialog:
Jon Stewart: You’re relaxed now. You’re not nervous. You feel good.
Trevor Noah: I’m still a bit nervous, to be honest. Between your cops and, frankly, your Ebola….
Jon Stewart: Ah, ah! Your Ebola, my friend. It’s not our- believe me, he misspoke. You are from Africa. It’s your Ebola, my friend.
Trevor Noah: No, no, no, South Africa, Jon. We haven’t had a single case in over 18 years. In fact, my friends warned me. They were like “Trevor, don’t go, don’t go to the U.S. You’ll catch Ebola.” And I was like, “You know what, guys, just because they had a few cases of Ebola doesn’t mean we should cut off travel there. That would be ignorant, right?”
Stewart and Noah pause while the satire takes effect, and the audience applauds. In this sketch, Stewart and Noah expose the Ebola-is-African narrative by flipping it on its head, positioning the United States as the home of the disease and South Africa as the country at risk of getting it. When the applause dies down, Stewart and Noah poke fun at the Ebola-is-all-over Africa and Africa-is-a-country narratives:
Jon Stewart: You know, I guess we tend to forget that South Africa, you know, isn’t, you know, right next door to Liberia, right?
Trevor Noah: Four thousand miles away.
Jon Stewart: Yeah. I was calculating in kilometers.
In this exchange, Stewart and Noah mock Americans’ conceptualization of Africa as one country, their ignorance of its size and geography, and the fact that the United States could fit into Africa three times (Turvill 2013). Similarly, shortly after Anthony England’s “No Ebola” African map went viral on Twitter, West Africans in his feed asked for a US version for Africans. In response, Nkem E. Kalu published the map “The America without Ebola for Interested Africans” (Kalu 2014).
Comedy is often the mechanism by which societal ideologies are examined and challenged. By reversing the dominant otherizing discourses, The Daily Show and Kalu’s map reveal how the powerful discourses of panic can engender irrational, stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs. The subtext or metamessage of this sketch is that the dominant discourses have pushed out other voices-particularly African ones, individual voices and larger, yet marginalized narratives-which counter and challenge the popular, widely circulated narratives of Africa and Ebola and the resulting stigmatization of Africans.
One such voice, Shoana Cachelle, started the I-am-not-a-virus campaign. She and other Liberian women created the I-Am-a-Liberian-Not-a-Virus movement to fight the stereotyping and stigmatization. In a YouTube video (2014), she states, “We live in a region that has been devastated by the disease, but we’re not all infected. It is wrong to stereotype and stigmatize an entire people. Remember, we are human beings.” Her video and message went viral on sites such as YouTube and Twitter, with other Africans joining the movement. In the Africa Is A Country blog, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza explains why he is afraid of “the African Disease of Ebola”: “I am afraid of Ebola because it has quarantined me in the denigrated Africa of the Western imagination, in the diseased blackness of my body. Ebola has robbed the American public of Africa’s multiple stories, of the continent’s splendid diversities, complexities, contradictions, and contemporary transformations.” Zeleza hits on several themes in the American Ebola narrative: Western imaginaries of Africa, the African body as diseased and black, and oversimplification of the continent’s diversity. He extends the notion of quarantine, in which the act of quarantining to protect the unaffected results in denigrating all Africans merely by conceiving of Ebola as an African disease.
Also absent from the Ebola narrative are stories of Ebola survivors: how people navigated quarantines, stigmatization, and reintegration in their communities (Conciliation Resources n.d.); how bans on burial practices interrupted the grieving process (All Africa 2015); and how the practice of telling one’s own story is empowering (Ma 2016). The dominant Ebola narrative and the marginalized voices exemplify what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) calls “The Danger of a Single Story” of Africa. Still prevalent in public and media discourse is the single story of Africa, (re)presenting Africa as a place of disease, war, poverty, AIDS, and lack. Rarely featured in this discourse are depictions of “culture, beauty, art and music,” and “positivity” and “human talent” (Kidjo 2014).
Discourse is powerful: it not merely reflects attitudes, but can effect change and affect behavior (Austin 1975). During the 2014 Ebola outbreak and its coverage in the media, the American Ebola narrative dredged up old, yet strongly held, tropes of Africa, principally “Ebola is African” and “Africa is a country.” These themes were not new; what was new was the speed at which people reported and received news updates: the ubiquity of smart phones and social media made it is easy to distort and miscalculate the threat of an infectious disease. Internalizing the Ebola-is-African and Africa-is-acountry themes led to the othering and stigmatization of Africans living in the United States and those returning from Africa. The consequences of otherization included the loss of employment, tarnished reputations, and emotional suffering from stigma.
The implications of media, panic, and otherization now reach far beyond the geographical boundaries of Africa and the topical scope of Ebola. Since the 2014 Ebola outbreak, public concern over the Zika virus and the emergence of suberbugs from antibiotic resistance has surged. Reports of terrorist attacks, particularly ISIS related, have effectively increased public fear of terrorism and, consequently, the rise of Islamophobia. At the time of this writing, President Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries (National Public Radio 2017). To eradicate terrorism, the order created immediate confusion about who was included and excluded and the detention of immigrants and greencard holders, and it sparked nationwide protests, especially at airports. Panic- and/or emotion-driven production and consumption of media on certain topics, to the exclusion of others, risks distorting perceived versus actual threats and perpetuating dominant, yet incomplete, narratives.