THE limits to my liberalism became clear at 10.10pm on Thursday. The BBC news had just finished reporting on the Briton who may or may not have died of Ebola in Macedonia and my youngest son had dissolved into a blubbering heap on the sofa. “It’s coming closer,” he wailed, “and we all might die.”
His hysteria mounted as his brothers – scenting weakness – made plans to stock up with canned food in preparation for the impending apocalypse. Eventually, unable to console him or to stand the heartbreak, I heard myself say: “What are you worrying about, you don’t even know anyone from west Africa.”
The line won me a brief reprieve from the crying, but at a cost to my self-respect because, by now, the news agenda had moved on to the Clacton by-election. As Douglas Carswell’s face appeared on the screen, I realised with a surge of shame that what I’d said was more than a little xenophobic and I might as well just have signed up to UKIP.
In my defence, I have to say it was late and I had work to do. I do not really intend to teach my children to stay away from Africans or to see them or anyone else as a threat. But weren’t most of us quite happy to dismiss Ebola as just another intractable third world problem like famine, malaria or civil war – a terrible scourge from which we ourselves were insulated – until it threatened to invade our shores?
From the moment Ebola started spreading beyond a handful of African villages – and particularly since it started affecting health workers and making moves on the United States and Europe – there have been racist overtones to the crisis. Just look at the juxtaposition of images: poor black victims left to rot in the street, white aid workers almost literally bubble-wrapped and airlifted to western hospitals.
Supplies of ZMapp medication for two US missionaries, who survived; none for Thomas Duncan, the Liberian in a rundown apartment in Texas, who died. Even if this proves to be a red herring, and the US has simply run out, there are questions to be answered. How come Duncan was sent home despite displaying many of the symptoms associated with Ebola, when a sheriff’s deputy who visited his apartment was taken to hospital by men in protective clothing? Are we already seeing a distinction between the deserving and undeserving sick?
Ebola is portrayed as synonymous with black Africans, spread by the consumption of bush meat and primitive customs, though, in truth, it is no respecter of ethnicity and is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. At a time where the right is on the rise and immigration perceived as a threat, you can see where this will lead. Indeed, we already appear to be heading in that direction. At press conferences last week, officials were repeatedly asked if Duncan was a US citizen; in other words, is he one of us or one of them?
Now the UK government has been bounced into carrying out screening at some airports, even though the effectiveness of such measures is in doubt. It would be bad enough if it were only those residents of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea who were likely to be on the receiving end of hostility. But we live in a world where people find it difficult to distinguish between people of different heritages.
How long before all Africans are viewed with suspicion? And, if a nine-year-old from Sierra Leone can be barred from a primary school before there has been a single case of Ebola in the UK, what injustices are going to be perpetrated once it arrives?
Fear is a powerful tool for those who wish to stoke hatred and there’s little more scary to people reared on films such as Outbreak than a deadly and out-of-control virus. It doesn’t matter that in real terms the risk is negligible. Statistics showing car crashes claim the lives of 1.2 million people a year (compared with the 4,000 who have died of Ebola) do nothing to offset the note of panic that is beginning to find its way into the voices of public health offices. And who can concentrate on bar charts when there are men in hazmat suits to look at?
For those born after 1990, Ebola is the first truly global threat. My generation grew up fearing a nuclear attack and worrying about the three-minute warning. It might have been Threads or the government leaflet on building a make-shift shelter, but most of us knew what it was to dread death through radiation.
When it comes to Ebola, though, the parallels with Aids are closer. Like Ebola, Aids started in fringe communities; like Ebola, the initial response to its threat was slow, and, like Ebola, it quickly led to the marginalisation of certain groups: Haitians, drug addicts, haemophiliacs and homosexuals. Some healthcare workers refused to treat Aids patients and teachers were told not to treat children’s cuts until they had put on gloves. All this did was to fuel hysteria, further alienating the affected communities.
You’d think we’d learn from our mistakes, but all the signs are that we are gearing up to repeat them. Already adults of Liberian heritage in Dallas are rumoured to have been turned away from their work. The link between Aids and Ebola was highlighted when Nigel Farage said only immigrants who are HIV-free should be let into the UK. It’s frightening enough that this new virus is so deadly, without it too being used as a weapon to punish already discriminated-against communities.