Ebola Panic and Human Rights: Racism and Public Health in the United States

With only a handful of cases in the United States or afflicting Americans abroad, the country is adrift on an apparently boundless sea of anxiety. Although worthy of more energy to contain and resolve this outbreak, it would be far wiser to extend compassionate treatment than to overreact with panic. Human rights would be empowered by a proportional and rational response, but knee-jerk fear has a history of racism in this country when it comes to public health. Unfortunately, current media reactions, prevalent in mainstream and social media, are fanning flames of xenophobia in America and withholding care from those that need it most. Worse, it endangers everyone in the process. There is much we don't know about Ebola, but there is a good bit that we do know about it and about effective public health and medicine. We know that it isn't airborne, selective quarantines can be effective but blanket ones are not,  and that screening and treatment are effective and panic and racism is not. Guess which path is suggested by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?

There is a long history in the West of marking Africa and its residents as a place of disease and disorder, best kept at bay and often beyond the salvation of "civilization" as viewed by London, Paris, and D.C. The same fear and concern that is now manifest with this Africans in this Ebola outbreak has been found in past bigoted reactions against Haitians, Chinese, Irish, Mexicans, and any number of "others," including LGBT citizens and the disabled to the present day. All of these people have had their freedoms, rights, and social space denied or restricted because of fear and panic. In all of these cases, compassion and reason would have served everyone better rather than denying people the standing that the UDHR promises.

There are millions of people in refugee camps in Syria, Thailand, Bangladesh and elsewhere from civil conflicts and bigoted attitudes, not to mention the millions more that are internally displaced people (IDPs). These are people who are not able to be safe in their homelands, much less their actual homes. In camps or other circumstances where people huddle for survival, residents are poorly served with inadequate funding and lackluster assistance if any at all. It is a guarantee that there will be an uptick in illness under these stresses in the best of outcomes, so prevention and treatment is especially critical. With widespread tuberculosis, malaria, and other illnesses endemic in many of these areas, allowing NGOs like MSF in to help assist reduces mortality and disease in the camps and affected populations and also the risk to neighboring and often larger communities. What has been learned in these settings where the goal is always to increase compassion and positive outcomes is instructive for modern America too.

Sensible medicine and public health work. Panic and national isolation does not. Quarantine and triage are responses best controlled by doctors and health professionals, not by political demagogues or xenophobes in denial that America needs the world as a partner not a pariah. One expects better from a nation that was once the leader and who now watches even underdeveloped countries stand taller in the responses and outcomes. As things stand, ill-informed one-percenters like Donald Trump have advocated, against medical advice and opinion, that even U.S. citizens who have become unwell, should be shut out of the chance to return to this country for treatment. Oddly, there seems to be no outcry over the fully preventable cases of measles or whooping cough that have erupted as a consequence of wealthy West Coast denizens choosing to simply avoid basic childhood vaccines and have cost real lives. This is not a suggestion that every person who suffers medical distress be flown to treatment in the United States nor that America needs to become the global doctor any more than the global cop, but we might start by not adding to misery and to do what we might to help humankind to feel stronger rather than more divided.

Attempts to demonize people as diseased or denying them treatment is immoral. Even more shameful, it is downright harmful. What can we do to help? If people are concerned about public health, they should be sure to get their recommended vaccines. We can listen to doctors on how to apply quarantines, and understand that blanket quarantines are not a solution to public health. We can see blanket racism as a public health threat, and the delusion of shutting off America as equal to an ostrich hiding its head. Increasing barriers for the poor, ill, and disenfranchised to obtain treatment threatens rather than improves public health. The state of medicine has grown by orders of magnitude in the past century. Apparently, the human mind is still prone to the same age-old problem of panic overriding compassion. Precisely in times like these we must speak out for each other and to each other. We must calm the feelings of anxiety and fear in order to respond fully as humans. We must extend the same care to other humans that we might hope to receive and listen to physicians not paranoids.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for all people to have a right to healthy lives and freedom from fear, with a numerous helping of rights since enumerated by subsequent United Nations documents and with widespread global support of citizens from a multitude of countries endorsing the premise of a healthy world being dependent on a healthy humankind. You are encouraged to write your Senators and Representatives to demand attention be given to filling the currently vacant post of Surgeon General in the United States, and end to playing with health to win political points in an election year, and adequate funding to provide the ability to respond to emerging health crises at home and abroad and to plan for future ones. Nothing less will support the health of a world with interdependent connections of trade and travel, and nothing less will support the human rights of all Americans and the rest of the world as affirmed and required by the landmark UDHR, a groundbreaking and UN-defining declaration shepherded by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt and with input from every region on Earth. Dread and panic can cause any human to act and react without regard to reason or rationality, but nothing should cause us to suspend the principles of human rights for all.