The Media Coverage Of Ebola: Fear, Hysteria And Misunderstanding

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

December 10, 2014

When the AIDS crisis broke out in the late 70s and early 80s, Haitians, heroin addicts and homosexuals for the spread of the disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) claimed that AIDS had emerged from Haiti as a result of a swine virus that had been passed to humans.

Images of animal sacrifices and bizarre voodoo rituals fuelled an irrational fear of Haitian refugees who faced discrimination and stigma and were quarantined in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, long before that name became inextricably tied up with images of torture and the so-called “War on Terror”.

Does that sound familiar? In early October, when the first Ebola case was diagnosed on American soil, Fox news host Andrea Tantaros told viewers: “In these countries they do not believe in traditional medical care, so someone could get off a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor who practices Santeria. This is a bigger fear. We’re hoping they come to the hospitals in the US but they might not!”

A South Korean restaurant places a sign saying that African customers are not welcome due to the Ebola epidemic | Credit: Telesur

A few days later, a South Korean restaurant went as far as putting up a sign that read: “We apologize but due to Ebola virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment”.

And then Donald Trump made his own unique contribution in a Twitter rant that blamed undocumented immigrants for spreading Ebola.

“The epidemic of fear that the (Ebola) outbreak in West Africa has provoked resembles responses to disasters at earlier historical moments in Haiti and to what we now call biosecurity threats”, says MIT anthropology professor Erica Caple James.Professor James teaches the Human Rights, Violence and Justice course that I’m auditing at MIT and organized the “Examining Ebola Interdisciplinary Panel” held on October 28th.Medical anthropologist Adia Benton, from Brown University, talked about the militarization of the international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Donald Trump’s Twitter rant


Jim Collins, from Boston University, Stephen Gire, from the Broad Institute, and Jarrod Goentzel, from MIT provided some much needed scientific background to the topic, and Clapperton Mavhunga, an MIT associate professor of science, technology and society, addressed African responses to Ebola.

“The statements in the press that men women and children are just sitting there waiting to die right now… I grew up there and I can tell you, we just didn’t sit and wait. I think the language could be refined to reflect that few people know the art of survival in near impossible odds like the Africans do”, says Mavhunga.

Medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin also issued some important words of advice to journalists covering the Ebola outbreak: “The fear factor is really up for exploitation. The important thing to do is get your facts straight”.

Watch the entire panel: