Ebola’s villain and victim


Amira Ali

Varying Western mainstream media styles of reporting on Ebola confirm how narratives are spaces of domination. The African Ebola patient is classically “othered” and portrayed as a villain and perpetrator, while the American Ebola patient is depicted as a victim.

Currently, narrating human tragedy may sound more like fiction, and perhaps fiction may have more humanity.

Whilst sensationalizing headlines regarding all things related to African tragedy is a common place for western mainstream media, the news coverage on the current “war on Ebola” is pervasively flooding. Much like scenes from a chilling movie with endless fear-inducing images of workers in hazmat costumes, reinforced with invasive stigmatizing, reductive images, and unclear language of medical folklore, the purpose seems to confuse and mount public anxiety.

More often than not, with the ubiquity of whiteness narrating Africa – popular imagination inherited during the colonial era of mass idea dissemination – while tramping local (African) agents, pervasively, we see the dissemination of a “single story”. By and large, in the dangerously monotone styled narration the villain is usually the African and the hero looks much like the western narrator; and such has been the dominant trajectory of white-scripted history.

Yes, the Ebola hemorrhagic fever is ravaging West Africa, and yes some have said it is spiraling out of control, undermining the social structures and exposing weak public institutions. Having said that, we are reminded by Mandisi Majavu that “the poor health situation in Africa exists largely due to colonialism, imperialism and global inequality”; underpinned by what Frantz Fanon calls “the contingencies -the discursive practices carried on from colonial times, economic drives, and institutional configurations.” And further weakening structures, catastrophes such as epidemics have been said, get managed out of “playbooks”; seemingly formulated by design to destroy and dismantle local structures. Hence, the reported mistrust in some West African countries concerning the spread of the Ebola disease is of no surprise, and is perhaps with merit.


Varying American mainstream media styles of reporting on Ebola confirm how narratives are spaces of domination. As scenarios and stories of the arrival of the virus from Africa into the U.S. rapidly varies, the inundation of sensationalized features that objectify the African body, much for the benefit of western readers, is consistently troublesome but not surprising. Bleakly evident is how human beings are portrayed; for some of us, the language of the inhumane voice and the circulating reductive images are more than uncomfortable; they’re mutilating. Emphasizingthe prevailing narrative that black Africans living in western countries are the diseased ‘other’ who pose a threat to the health of whites”, while the local African population is portrayed as unqualified and in dire need of being saved by the west.

Further, the current discourse around the outbreak, beyond medical racism, the politicized and racialized delivery –what Teju Cole calls “the Fox News of explosive incontinence”, attempts to remind us of how “the scourge of anti-Blackness is savage, deadly, and global”. As it purports to be concerned about health but lacking genuineness, western mainstream media has not been short on reporting the African story nevertheless failing to visualize beyond the historico-racial schema that is deep-rooted in social consciousness. And as Narcisse Jean Alcide Nana states, “Major clichés and few strong allegories conjure up the spasms of this ongoing malaise to the point of oversimplifying the field of African security.”

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New York Fashion Week models show off Chanel’s new contamination prevention Ready-to-wear collection in preparation for the Ebola apocalypse. Image obtained here


Telling of a common representational style, the African Ebola patient is classically “othered” and portrayed as a villain and perpetrator, while the American Ebola patient is depicted as a victim.

Not short on stigmatizing – treating Africa as dirty and disease infested, rather disturbingly, Newsweek’s August 2014 magazine cover features an image of a chimpanzee with the words, A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic. Overall, as the ignorant and racialized message behind the image is a common place for western media, the meaning behind the illustration is saturated with a historically pathological and racial depiction whereas the story illuminates incompetent and immoral journalistic performance.

While such and other sources fuel panic and racist reactions in and beyond the American borders, as authored in the Washington Post by Ishmael Bah, we have been made aware of how “in Germany, an African woman who recently traveled to Kenya — far from the affected countries — fell ill with a stomach virus at work; the entire building was locked down. In Brussels, an African man had a simple nosebleed at a shopping mall, and the store where it happened was sterilized. In Seoul, a bar put up a sign saying, “’we apologize but due to the Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment’”.

And yet again, on October 5, 2014, the New York Times in an article titled Ebola Victim’s Journey From Liberian War to ‘Fight for Life in U.S’, a peculiar feature regarding Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian national who while visiting the U.S. was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, the article written prior to his fatality attempts to sell, on and after the heading, a story that’s more than Ebola –underscoring the U.S. as “the savior of life”. But beyond the health status and concern of the patient, from a title that sets the tone and a story that reflects on its premise, in a disturbing and intrusive approach, senselessly, delves into the private history of the patient also weaving in the story of his child’s mother. Sensationalizing the story further, it reports irrelevant accounts such as describing the interior of the apartment – living space furnishings, types of furniture, color of floor, etc. – where Duncan was staying during his visit in the U.S. Additionally, as it further disregards the patient’s privacy, it publicizes a full graphic of the apartment layout.

Meanwhile, there have been articles written about American Ebola patients featured in a brief and humane tone, adhering to respect and safeguard of the patients’ privacy. On October 6, 2014, CNN, in an article titled Who are the American Ebola patients, the feature lists the American patient’s name; age; organization he/she works for; where he/she was infected, and the current health status of the patient. And in fact, on September 9, 2014, when Fox News reported the arrival of another American Ebola patient, it announced how based on Emory University Hospital “the identity and status remains confidential”.

All in all, selling the rare and exotic disease story of Africa with sensationalized stories that inspire headlines like “The ISIS of Biological Agents” and “Why Obama is allowing Ebolaphobia to spread” by media houses like Fox News and CNN has been bellyful. All while, sounding geographically unknowledgeable, on September 9, 2014, Fox News had a difficult time making the distinction between Liberia and Nigeria.

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With no concern to western mainstream media of being informed, geographically speaking or with reference to other facts, rather, capitalizing on mounting fear and anxiety Ebola is portrayed as the disease of the diseased black man and a burden for the rest. Meanwhile, the American patients are represented in a ratherwhite-savior industrial complex” manner; as Aid workers or volunteers who’ve journeyed to Liberia to save lives and now implicated, all while they were doing-good and offering charitable service. Telling their story in a sentimental tone, as victims of the “African” malady.

Characteristically, the indicated written accounts and others not mentioned further highlight how narratives are spaces for dominant groups to take on the role of defining the out-group’s identity. And far from educating the public and taking responsible media action on the outbreak that is projected to infect “more than 1.4 million persons in the next few weeks”, it has taken the opportunity to drive fear. Insisting on coverage that speaks to the militarization of West African epicenters of Ebola and all else that incites panic, while as stated by Horace Campbell “placing no attention on measures for public education,” with no sight to foster and address the overwhelming need “to diminish the racialization of Ebola to clarify that the first recognized outbreak took place not in Africa, but in Marburg Germany, hence the name given to Ebola as Marburg Virus”.


Having said all of that, beyond western stigmatization and military intervention, in the end, what we [Africans and friends of Africa] prominently ought to demand and what will matter the most is how to contain this lethal virus and how Africans can be mobilized to save their own. Pointing towards how the most effective action and solution has to be within, from a type of African leadership that values the lives of its citizens and takes appropriate measures to respond; to educate and mobilize.

Significantly, as stated by Horace Campbell, “The very same institutions and organizations that have been at the forefront of bioeconomic warfare in Africa cannot lead the mobilization against Ebola,” and furthermore, “ECOWAS has been able in the past to intervene in Liberia and Sierra Leone to bring peace. Collectively, ECOWAS and the AU possess the technical and medical capabilities to be more vigorous in response to Ebola. There is the mistaken perception abroad that Africa does not have the medical personnel to fight this epidemic. However, the ability to mobilize the resources in Africa for a more robust response depends on political will.”

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