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Are racist rants unavoidable “collateral damage” in an Ebola crisis?

By Kristof Decoster
on October 22, 2014

There are many among us who hope the Ebola crisis will turn out to be a wake-up call for the international community to invest more in global health security, including health systems strengthening in countries with (too) weak health systems. Whether you call it a global “Katrina moment” or a global “SARS moment”, depending on your political preferences, the hope is that the world will learn lessons from this painful crisis, and finally enter a post-Westphalian public health era, as it probably should have done already a decade ago. In short, even if we have our doubts, many of us hope the Ebola crisis will be a game changer. A critical mass of people will now understand the necessity to deal with the increasing interdependence, if only for reasons of enlightened self-interest. That’s the theory at least.

One of the complicating factors for this to happen, at least in the North, is an old and familiar foe: racism.  As noted in a recent ‘View from the Cave’ blog post, Ebola seems to bring out the worst in some people on social media, in terms of stigmatizing Africa(ns), even if the disease also sparked funny tweets like “More Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died of Ebola”.

As world leaders and organizations working in the field are calling for more global solidarity and  help in the Ebola response, on a near weekly basis, at the same time part of the population seems to be marching in the opposite direction. The sad irony is that some of the very leaders who now call for a more concerted international response, are in other circumstances quick to whip up racism to bolster their poll ratings (even if they tend to do so in a more subtle way, for example by arguing that immigrants should have “added economic value”, while ostensibly opposing racism).

Before dreaming about a grand Global Health Emergency Fund, talking about shared responsibility or even extraterritorial obligations (as my human rights colleagues love to do, with the Maastricht principles in mind – in a slip of the tongue, I called them ‘extraterrestrial obligations’ the other day, in a lunch conversation with my colleague Rachel Hammonds…), global leaders might want to keep in check their own rhetoric in “ordinary” circumstances, while talking about the economy for example, as it seems to backfire now. There will always be racism, obviously, but can you really blame citizens for being xenophobic on Ebola if their own politicians in power use some “underbelly” arguments in other cases, and basically steer society in a harder and more selfish direction with many of their policies?

True, David Cameron is no Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people react like this, in times of hysteria and paranoia, and are looking for familiar scapegoats, i.e. people who are routinely being stigmatized in other circumstances by their own politicians.  I expect to see the same “spectacle” in my own country, Belgium, once we have a few Ebola cases ourselves (although I hope we can avoid the current American situation with rightwing politicians keen to exploit the mass hysteria).

If our politicians are serious about investing in global public goods in the 21st century, it will have implications for their policies in other areas and soundbites on tv. They probably know that. In any case, it should also be one of the lessons from this crisis.

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