A high school friend of my wife was one of the earliest victims of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He was a flight attendant, who was stricken and died quickly. When he died they still had not come up with a name for the pandemic. But then others became sick and died and suddenly the public knew that something deadly was unfolding.
In the beginning of the pandemic there were different ways that it was characterized. The media and the “street” would talk about the “gay cancer” or the “disease” that afflicted Haitians, homosexuals and hemophiliacs. There were those who suggested locking up entire populations. No one seemed to know whether you could hug and kiss someone with what later came to be called HIV/AIDS. There was panic. While the science was ignored, there was a demand for a cure. All sorts of theories circulated as to how and why HIV/AIDS emerged.
It was through the work of groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP and others that the crisis was confronted at the level of public health and justice. They and similar such formations mobilized against the demonization of the HIV/AIDS infected. Slowly the tide began to turn and attitudes started to shift.
That said, it feels, in the midst of the Ebola crisis, that we are back to ground zero. Science is being ignored. The Australian government has cut off visas to West African countries afflicted by the outbreak and has refused to deploy medical personnel to help to confront the tragedy. They seem to think that they can put Australia in some sort of bubble and keep it healthy. I hate to break it to them but in this age of globalization, it does not work that way.
Yet, in the U.S. there are many people with the same impulses. In a country of more than 300 million people there have been nine victims of Ebola. Nine. Yet the actions by some politicians would make you think that thousands of people had crossed the Atlantic and were infecting the population. Worse, there are politicians who are pinning this crisis on President Obama as a way of motivating their base to vote for conservatives.
It is time for something akin to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. There needs to be a broad-based discussion about Ebola and I would argue that the African American community and African immigrants must take the lead because this pandemic is painted with “race” by all sorts of charlatans. Much as HIV/AIDS became another reason to dehumanize gays, Ebola has become yet another reason to condemn the African World.
Panic and irrational responses are not stopped through pleading, and are frequently not stopped through common sense. You sometimes need a strong force that, through its actions, mobilizations, publicity, etc., shatters the panic and actually forces the larger public to consider reality.
That time has arrived.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice writer and activist. You can follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.