Confronting Echoes of the AIDS Hysteria as we Battle Ebola
Exactly 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 STD’s. 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 United States knew how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was ravaging his city and countryside; and if the U.S. knew how his distant cousins of the Diaspora-African Americans, and his queer allies – LGBTQ Americans – could simply be silent and not act.
By 2012 the U.S. was on record for contributing nearly $200 million devoted to stemming AIDS and Malaria in Liberia. Only then did the county 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 10,000 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.
When the New York Native, a now-defunct gay paper, in its May 18, 1981, issue first reported on a virus among gay men that was known then as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), an editorial made it known that “even if the disease first become apparent in gay men, it is not just ‘a gay disease.’”
Hysteria coupled with homophobia reared their ugly heads and targeted gay men across the country. Now, perhaps because we are decades removed, we can recognize this as an act of intolerance and inhospitality toward the ill.
With the AIDS epidemic also came the emergence of the Christian Right, which propagandized the moment as a providential sign of God’s abhorrence for LGBTQ people. But with no help from the Christian Right, President Ronald Reagan, who saw the first signs of the AIDS epidemic in 1981, his first year in office, had his own theological view on the AIDS epidemic that influenced the laissez-faire attitude his administration exhibited. Reagan said, “Maybe the Lord brought down the plague because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”
In seeing the inherent value and goodness in every person’s life, 16th century English poet John Donne once said “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In a time like this I’m reminded of the Gospel mandate of Mathew 25: “When I was in prison, you visited me; when I was sick, you comforted me. What you do for the least of them you do for me,” and Martin Luther King’s quote, highlighting our interconnectedness as a beloved community, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
However, with the theological belief that God’s will was indeed being done, Reagan unflinchingly watched the death toll climbed to over 41,000 deaths and over 60,000 diagnoses of full-blown AIDS before he spoke up about it in March 1987.
For the Christian Right, it was a just way to exterminate us instead of making us wear pink triangles in a German concentration camp. And for others, tagging us was a more acceptable way of monitoring. In 1986, for example, Sen. William F. Buckley Jr., believing in a need to track who was inflected with the virus in order to stop its spread, suggested that people with AIDS be tattooed on their buttocks and forearms.
The “God is angry” explanation for the Ebola epidemic is the same misguided theological response given about the Haiti Earthquake, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and for that matter any disaster since the biblical Genesis flood narrative.
When doors and hearts are shut to people in need out of fear that is an act of inhospitality.
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. 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 stigmatize 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.
This holiday season let’s show our fellow person some compassion.
By Reverend Irene Monroe