People are treating Africa like a country because of Ebola

From Monrovia to Guangdong, Africans can’t escape the stigma.
From Monrovia to Guangdong, Africans can’t escape the stigma.
Image: Reuters/Alex Lee
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Ebola was one of the biggest news stories this year. What did we learn from it? Not much. Panic and fear replaced rational thinking. And there was another pernicious behavior we didn’t change.

Ebola would have been a chance to start differentiating Africa. Yet, we’re doing quite the opposite. We continue to look at Africa as one country. We act as if the whole continent is contaminated. And most sadly, outside Africa we stigmatize Africans, no matter which part of the continent they’re from, because of Ebola.

At an elementary school in New Jersey, two Rwandan students had to stay at home because parents and the school were concerned. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria. In Minnesota, sneezing Liberians were asked to leave work temporarily.

In Germany, several schools were said to stay away from an annual world bazaar in Berlin with participants from Africa. The organizer wrote a press release assuring that no one from one of the affected countries would attend. However, they had a health worker on site just in case anyone got a fever. A Nigerian-German, Marie-Theres Chigoziena Aden-Ugbomah, told me in an email that her son gets called “Ebola” at his job in Aachen. Kangni Kossigan Samlan, a German who lives in Bavaria and is married to a Togolese man said: “It doesn’t matter whether I’m white. People only see my husband, who is black.” On the tramway to Munich, Samlan had to sneeze. People moved away from her and her husband, who both wear traditional African clothes.

In China, Clet Fuh from Cameroon said that when he tried to buy a table for his son in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, the shopkeeper asked where he was from and if there was Ebola in his home country. When a customer overheard the conversation, the man left the shop. “It was obvious that he was afraid of me,” said Mr. Fuh on the phone. Tendai Musakwa in Shanghai said that when he returned from a recent trip to his home country—Zimbabwe—he had to undergo a medical checkup at the airport like all other travelers from African countries. He wondered why officials didn’t restrict it “to those who had been to Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.” On WeChat, China’s WhatsApp, there were a number of racist posts related to Ebola, including a witch-hunt for two Guineans who were about to study at a university in Guangzhou.

When I tried to enter China to do more research in Guangzhou—in the Guangdong province, which is home to China’s largest African population—after a conference in Vietnam, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi denied me a visa. Officials said this was because of my recent stay in Liberia where I had covered Ebola. When I told the visa officers that my 21-day incubation period was by far over, they remained reluctant.

I used the opportunity to do research in Vietnam instead where I met a Nigerian businessman in Ho Chi Minh City. The man—who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions for his business—said a shopkeeper once refused to serve him when he wanted to buy a scratch card for his mobile. On another occasion, workers at a gas station said something about Ebola in Vietnamese and stared at him.

These are, of course, a few individual examples in countries with large populations; they truly don’t hold for everybody. Still, we should question our judgment—and in the aftermath of Ebola—we must assess the real origins of our panic and fear. Last week, the Economist reported on declining tourism across Africa. Fearing Ebola, people no longer go on safari in Kenya, which is some 3,100 miles from West Africa. Most cities in Europe are closer to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea than Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

These examples leave a bitter taste. Black skin, an African accent, an African name, or perhaps traditional clothes are enough to prove ”suspicious.” If it wasn’t easy to be an African outside Africa before, Ebola won’t help.