Confronting echoes of the AIDS hysteria as we battle Ebola

Rev.MonroesquareExactly a decade ago this month I received an email flagged as urgent from Monrovia, Liberia. It was from Lee Johnson, then coordinator of Liberian Youths Against HIV/AIDS:

“Presently, the HIV/AIDS scourge is deeply eating into the fabric of our society and there is little being done to bring this to a halt. Therefore, some of us youths have come together to be able to bring awareness to our fellow youths on the danger of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. But, at present, we are not receiving much from the locals and that is why we have decided to get in contact with you,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson wanted to know if the U.S. knew how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was ravaging his city and countryside; and if the U.S. knew how possibly could his distant cousins of the Diaspora — African Americans — and his queer allies — LGBTQ Americans — simply be silent and not act. By 2012 the U.S. is on record for contributing nearly $200 million devoted to stemming AIDS and malaria in Liberia. Only then did the country begin seeing a decline in the epidemics.

Since December 2013 Liberia, along with Sierra Leone and Guinea, cried out to the world community for help in fighting the deadliest outbreak of the Ebola epidemic to date. By this summer’s end the death toll per day from the virus in those West African countries was staggering to the point of disbelief — with a projected rate of 1,000 new cases each week in two months according to the World Health Organization.

In September Shoana Solomon, a photographer and TV presenter, and her daughter excitedly arrived in the U.S. from Monrovia just in time for Solomon’s nine-year-old to start school. “You’re from Liberia, so you have a disease,” was what the nine-year-old heard as a greeting.

The unrelenting tenacity of the Ebola virus — like HIV/AIDS — has taught us much about the preciousness of life, and about the various faces — across race, class and gender, country and continent — who wore and continue to wear the face of this disease.

But since September 30, when Thomas Eric Duncan became the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the states and subsequently died of the virus, West Africans, specifically Liberians, have been the target of unimaginable stigmatization and untold discrimination. The hysteria and paranoia associated with Ebola is eerily reminiscent of when the country was in its AIDS crisis.

There has been much debate about tighter border controls to keep out not only the Ebola virus from jeopardizing any more of American healthcare workers, but West Africans, too. And there has also been some bantering about keeping a closer eye on those who look West African. And, good luck with that xenophobic measure since those of us who are the progeny of the Transatlantic Slave Trade are from West Africa.

While hysteria paints a picture that America is in the throes of an Ebola epidemic, no American to date has died of the virus in the U.S. Five, however, have contracted the virus in West Africa and returned home to the states: Dr. Kent Brantly, Nancy Writebol and Dr. Rick Sacra, Ashoka Mukpo, and an unnamed American.

We are now too often hearing the numbers of those dying or dead from this disease and unfortunately do not fully comprehend the magnitude of how lives are continually being lost in West Africa or stigmatized for being West African here. This is not only an unconscionable act of xenophobia toward the targeted groups believed to test positive for Ebola, but it is also a symptom of a sick society that tests negative for compassion.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.