Members of the West African community in New York say their children were being bullied at school and their businesses were losing money because of hysteria over Ebola, a disease that has has killed about 5,000 people in West Africa.
On Wednesday, the African Advisory Council (AAC), a community group in New York, said in a news conference in the Bronx, home to one of the largest African communities in the US, that ignorance was driving the hysteria over Ebola.
“What happened to your children is unacceptable, as New Yorkers, as Americans, as human beings,” said the congressman for the Bronx, Jose Serrano.
“I need my community to be safe but also to be protected,” he said, likening the fear of Ebola to the ignorance and panic that once confronted the emergence of AIDS.
Panic has gripped many Americans since a Liberian citizen brought the killer virus into the country and died on October 8 of the disease in a Texas hospital.
Two nurses who treated him became infected, though have since recovered, and a US doctor who returned to New York from treating Ebola patients in Guinea was diagnosed with the virus last week.
In the face of public panic, some US states and the Pentagon have imposed quarantine rules for people returning from Ebola-afflicted countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
We rebuke any stigmatisation that goes with Ebola, any stigmatisation that's before our business community, any stigmatisation that's against our kids in the school.
Stemmed from ignorance
Last week, two Senegalese boys were called Ebola and assaulted at a school in the Bronx so badly they had to go to hospital, community leaders said.
The boys had moved to New York three weeks ago to join their father, a cab driver who has lived in the US for nearly 20 years.
Their father Ousmane Drame blamed the assault on “kids who know nothing”, and said the incident stemmed from ignorance.
US President Barack Obama and officials in New York have repeatedly sought to urge calm, hailing medical workers battling Ebola as heroic and stressing that Ebola cannot be contracted through casual contact.
But community members say pervasive ignorance and scare mongering in sections of the media are putting their children at risk and jeopardising their livelihoods.
“We rebuke any stigmatisation that goes with Ebola, any stigmatisation that’s before our business community, any stigmatisation that’s against our kids in the school,” said Charles Cooper, Bronx president of the AAC.
Stephanie Arthur, chair of the civil engagement committee of the AAC, told AFP that she had no precise number of incidents but said Ebola exacerbated the bullying many African children already face because of their origin. Neither was it just in New York. Children had also been harassed and called Ebola in Texas, she said.
“This greatly impacts our quality of life as Africans,” she told reporters.
“I want to challenge the media, I want to challenge health professionals to accurately report how this virus is transmitted. This fearmongering hurts this community,” she added.
According to the Immigration Policy Centre, the African foreign-born population in the US doubled in size between 2000 and 2010.
Nearly half of African immigrants are naturalised US citizens, and the largest African communities are in California, New York, Texas, Maryland, and Virginia.