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US West Africans facing Ebola stigma

Discrimination on the rise in New York City as locals gossip about those who have lost entire families 7,000km away.

| Health, Ebola, Africa, US & Canada

Liberian-American Moses Jensen says Ebola fears have led to discrimination in New York [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

By

James Reinl

James Reinl is a journalist and world affairs analyst who has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering Haiti’s earthquake, Sri Lanka’s civil war and human rights abuses in Iran.

New York City, United States - West Africans living in a leafy suburb of New York City do not shake hands like they used to.

"People are worried. They are writing on the internet that Ebola is here in Staten Island," Christopher Blake, 45, a Sierra Leonean clothes-seller, told Al Jazeera. "My friend just came from work. We used to shake hands. Now, I just gave him the elbow. It's not rude, we've adapted to it already. It is what it is. You stretch your hand, nobody will shake it."

Staten Island is home to some 10,000 Liberians and other West Africans. They are fearful of an Ebola outbreak back home that has claimed nearly 4,900 lives and led to a handful of infections in Spain and the United States. 

The most recent US victim is a New York-based physician with the charity Médecins Sans Frontières who returned from West Africa recently. 

Staten Island locals gossip on street corners about residents who have lost entire families to the disease 7,000km away in the worst-hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Some complain about being refused work or dropped by friends after visiting West Africa.

Discrimination is on the rise among residents of Park Hill, a West African-dominated suburb of Staten Island [James Reinl]

"Ebola has become a stigma. Ebola has become about not trusting people," Moses Jensen, 69, a Liberian-American retiree, told Al Jazeera. "Just this morning, an African-American man in my apartment block asked me why a Liberian brought Ebola to America. That's discrimination."

Fighting Ebola stigma

In a bid to counter stereotypes of West Africans, some have posted photographs of themselves on social media using the hashtag #IAmALiberianNotAVirus.

Other West African communities in the US have held prayer sessions and fundraisers in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Providence and California.

Fears among West African-Americans intensified after the first person diagnosed with the virus in the US, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national with relatives in Texas, died in Dallas on October 8. 

Initially, Duncan was not diagnosed at a Dallas hospital. Days later, at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, two nurses who were part of Duncan's care team were infected with Ebola despite following safety protocols.

Television news anchors warned, sometimes hysterically, of Ebola spreading in the US. One woman reportedly arrived at Washington DC's Dulles Airport wearing a partial hazmat suit, fearful of catching hemorrhagic fever.

US President Barack Obama rejected calls to ban travellers from the worst-hit West Africa countries, and urged people to not "give in to hysteria or fear".

Amid criticism over a lax response - and ahead of next month's crucial mid-term elections - Obama held a flurry of meetings and appointed Ron Klain, a lawyer, to oversee anti-Ebola efforts in the US. He started work on Wednesday.

Slipping through the net

The US military is forming a "quick-strike team" to treat Ebola patients in the US. Border guards screen passengers at airports in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and Newark, which handle 94 percent of arrivals from Ebola-hit countries.

Tensions eased on Monday, when dozens of people who had come into contact with Duncan were cleared of twice-daily checks after showing no Ebola symptoms during the disease's 21-day incubation period. Many more are still being monitored.

Observers say it is only a matter of time before another sufferer slips through the net.

"In our globalised world, it is almost certain that more Ebola cases will reach Europe and the US - despite the airport screening programme that has been launched in several countries," David Heymann, from the UK-based think-tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

Residents of Park Hill, a West African-dominated suburb of Staten Island, New York, are fearful of an Ebola outbreak [James Reinl] 

"Given this, and the fact that current estimates predict the rate of infection will rise to 10,000 cases per week by December, it is vital that the lessons of how to defeat Ebola are learned quickly."

Obama isn't the only official to face Ebola blowback. The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) has been accused of standing by as the virus tore through rural West Africa.

A leaked internal document said WHO officials "failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall". The agency has promised an inquiry once the outbreak is under control.

"The Ebola catastrophe did not have to happen but is instead a result of failures in disease surveillance, vaccine innovation, and the emergency public health response," David Gartner, an aid analyst with the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera.

"Without these failures, the world would already have an Ebola vaccine, the initial outbreak would not have festered for three months without anyone figuring out what was happening, and a serious global response would not have been delayed by as much as nine months as the epidemic spun out of control."

'Economic catastrophe'

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently called for more help and warned that a generation of Africans were at risk of "being lost to economic catastrophe". The World Bank said Ebola could cost the region $32.6 billion by the end of next year.

The outbreak has infected about 9,000 people across West Africa - killing an estimated 70 percent of those infected. International donations have so far fallen well short of the sums requested by the UN and aid groups.

We want to know the root cause of Ebola. I want to see international investigators go in depth to trace the origin of Ebola so we can see the facts.

- Moses Jensen, Liberian-American

European Union foreign ministers met in Luxembourg on Monday to discuss strengthening their response to the Ebola threat. The US is deploying 4,000 American troops and calling up reservists to help the stricken region.

"Though countries like the US, UK, France, China and Cuba have started committing assets and personnel to the affected region, progress is slow. Isolation centres with trained health staff must be established now," Sandra Murillo, a spokeswoman for Médecins Sans Frontières, told Al Jazeera.

"It is not enough for donor states to just build the physical structures - they must be well-managed with a strong chain of command and trained medical and support staff to safely and efficiently care for patients."

Although contagious and deadly, the disease has limits. It is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood, saliva and other bodily fluids - preventing contact with a victim's fluids stops its spread.

WHO has declared Nigeria and Senegal to be Ebola-free in recent days. Medics in both countries demonstrated how responding quickly and monitoring those who were in contact with sufferers can beat the disease.

Despite gains overseas and stepped-up efforts in the US, it will be some time before Staten Island's West Africans shake hands on the street again.

Jensen said Ebola hurts African pride. While many African countries have strong economic growth rates, war and disease still dominate the headlines in Western media.

The Liberian-American circulates text messages refuting Ebola's African origin. He even speculated that the current outbreak resulted from a botched experiment in a US bio-weapons laboratory.

"We want to know the root cause of Ebola. I want to see international investigators go in depth to trace the origin of Ebola so we can see the facts," said Jensen.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera

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