FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Moral Panic Over Ebola

In the wake of a Dallas hospital’s decision to release a Liberian patient with Ebola into the community—who later died of the disease after returning to the hospital—a fierce debate has erupted over how to deal with the potential for an outbreak in the United States.

One idea is to bar people from Ebola-affected regions from entering this country. This embodies a type of moral panic, a phenomenon defined by Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, as anything “defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”

Although the West African Ebola sufferers are the current “folk devils,” moral panic is nothing new.

Several examples exist in history, including everything from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to the anti-Semitic politics of the Nazis. In 1938, Hitler said, “If we do not take steps to preserve the purity of blood, the Jew will destroy civilisation by poisoning us all.”

And modern democracies are hardly immune. In 1988, The Daily Star in the United Kingdom wrote in an editorial: “Surely if the human race is under threat, it is entirely reasonable to segregate AIDS victims—otherwise the whole of mankind could be engulfed. … The truth is that promiscuous homosexuals are by far the biggest spawning ground for AIDS.”

The elements of moral panic are well reflected in the current Ebola scare:

1  The fear is far disproportionate to the actual threat. Ebola is not as contagious as influenza (which still kills thousands of people every flu season) or other viral infections.

2  There are strident objections to the anticipated invasion of the folk devils (all those virus-ridden Africans are going to come here).

3  The debate contains a subtext of righteous indignation over the wider issue of immigration (letting “all these foreigners” into the country).

4  Shrill recommendations are made for how to stop the deadly folk devils: Says Jessica M. Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies, “Our government must simply deny admission to any non-U.S. citizen who has been in the afflicted countries in the recent past, until the crisis is over.

In addition to being cruel and discriminatory, this last proposal is simply impractical.

Denying admission to any non-U.S. citizen may make political sense to entrepreneurs of moral panic, but it is medically illogical because Ebola seems to have no problem infecting Americans as well. For this approach to truly work, U.S. citizens who have recently been in West Africa would need to be barred as well.

Although the U.S. government could technically refuse to grant new visas to all Africans traveling from West Africa (a catastrophic recipe for relations between the United States and the region), it would still be left with West Africans who already have visas. For that, the United States would have to secure the cooperation of all international airlines at all European hubs. Since Ebola symptoms typically manifest 2 to 21 days after exposure, the airlines would have to prevent anyone who has been in West Africa within the last three weeks from boarding their aircraft and flying to the United States.

As pointed out in more than one article elsewhere, there are very few direct flights from West Africa to the United States. Delta, for example, runs the only nonstop flight from Accra, Ghana (not, by the way, affected by Ebola at the time of this writing) to the United States. Instead, many travelers fly from West Africa to the United States via Europe on carriers like British Airways, Emirates, KLM, and Lufthansa. By the strange mechanics of airline travel, one can often get a better ticket deal that way. In addition, business and family ties between West Africa and Europe make a convenient stopover in London or Paris, for example, necessary or preferable.

Don’t assume travelers stuck in transit would take such a targeted and discriminatory ban lying down. Arguments are bound to erupt between furious passengers and the ticket agents or customs officers preventing them from flying. Who is going to refund passengers for their disallowed flights? The airline? The U.S. government (i.e. you, the taxpayer)? Where are these barred passengers going to stay, for how long, and who is going to pay for it? Send them back to Africa—under what authority? What if they live legally in the United States?

Take the chaos on one flight alone and multiply it by all the outgoing flights in all the European airports serving the United States and get ready for some major and frustrating delays, not to mention missed connections. Earlier this year when I flew from Paris to Washington on Air France’s giant Airbus A380, boarding was chaotic—and that was a normal day of operations.

Solutions lie in much better screening and training at departure and entry points, as well as increased awareness among medical providers in the United States. Like it or not, Ebola is going to be around for a while. We must deal with it in effective and smart ways—which means we refocus, calm down, use some common sense, and discard the moral panic.

Kwei Quartey M.D. is a crime novelist and physician who grew up in Ghana. He is now based in Los Angeles. A previous columnist at Foreign Policy in Focus and a contributor to The Huffington Post, he travels frequently to Ghana. His fourth novel, GOLD OF THE FATHERS, will be published in February 2016.

This essay originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail