It’s that time of year where we side-eye the driver sniffling on the shuttle and the student sneezing in the class. But it seems that the common “excuse me” and “bless you” that follows a cough has been replaced with the denial or accusation of Ebola. I’ve seen this scenario happen more than I would like and my response is often an unamused laugh, annoyed eye-roll or disappointed headshake. It seems that the virus is not the only thing spreading — hate, ignorance and a heap of bad jokes have gone just as viral.
In early October, I attended a body-painting event where I met many talented artists and models. One artist stoodout from the rest, but not for her unique artistic expressions. This particular body-painter was memorable for taking a large step back, stretching her arms in front of her and asking me, “You don’t have Ebola, do you?” The question wasn’t an unclever response to a cough or sneeze. This woman was responding to my heritage, after I shared my ethnicity with her. I am a Liberian-American (not a virus). After reassuring her that I did not have Ebola and had not been to Liberia in two years, we gave each other an uncomfortable chuckle and parted ways.
Her fear and ignorance were reasonable. It was obvious that she had been receiving most of her Ebola knowledge from the hysteric U.S. media. I understood her half-joke-half-serious anxiety, but her xenophobia caused me to question whether I should be sharing my ethnicity — one of my proudest features. And although Ebola is not a real threat to me, it is a threat to the people that I love.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports that there are over 13,000 worldwide cases of Ebola; 4,910 of these cases were fatal and 2,413 of these fatal cases occurred in Liberia. This gives the word Ebola a different meaning for me than what it might mean to most of the people that I encounter every day on SCAD’s campus and around Atlanta. In addition to the thousands of deaths, I think about my relatives and friends who have to live in an atmosphere where it is more difficult to contain the disease. Bodies of entire families have been carried from homes, wrapped in thick plastic, thrown in the back of white trucks and buried or burned. Yet, the upbeat, entertaining and larger-than-life Facebook updates from my Liberian friends and family (that are living in Liberia) assure me that this lethal fever has not killed the spirit of the people— in various countries — who have to live with its aftermath. In fact, it has reminded me that Ebola victims in Liberia and other countries are surviving.
Despite the fact that the U.S. has an 80 percent survival rate (four Ebola patients have survived, one died and the other is still in treatment), Ebola is not a cold. Ebola progresses from fevers, body-pains and chills to swelling, rashes and bleeding. It is a traumatic experience that leaves many survivors without parents, children or siblings. Imagine recovering from an illness to discover that you are the only living member left in your family. A cough has never had that effect. And although the U.S. has been able to contain the disease, the survivors are still at risk of ongoing issues with vision, body-pains, headaches and fatigue. Now imagine someone showing up to a survivor’s door in a “sexy” Ebola costume for Halloween or on their Instagram in a ridiculous meme. It’s not so funny when you think about the reality of the situation.
To make it clear, all Ebola jokes are insensitive. Thousands of survivors have experienced 21 days of unbearable pain and sickness followed with family loss, diminished health and community ostracization. There are some people (Jon Stewart and Russell Howard) who have discussed deeper issues using the Ebola epidemic, and their commentaries have been amusing and well-researched. But if you don’t have this talent, please keep your “jokes” to yourself. Your Ebola jokes are not funny.