Ebola, the deadly virus that has killed thousands of Africans, recently hit Harlem. A doctor who was treating patients in West Africa, returned to his home not far from campus, and was diagnosed with Ebola. He is being cared for, but many remain terrified by the disease. Here is the first of several follow-up reports about the fear and stigma Ebola has caused.
Shoshana, a young woman originally from Africa and living in New York City for many years, feels marginalized and stigmatized by Ebola. Though she is from South Africa, not the West African countries that have been hit hardest by the deadly disease, she says the fear and suspicion against her are real. “My neighbor stopped coming to my home and avoids me on the street,” Shoshana says. (She asked that her surname be withheld.) “I feel like I have leprosy.”
Starting in March, Ebola broke out in West Africa, and the World Health Organization reports that it has infected about 10,000 people and killed more than 4,000. But as travelers carry it outside of Africa, the disease has become an international affair. It has triggered anxiety all over the world, especially in New York City where the first case was diagnosed last month, of Dr. Craig Spencer living on West 147th Street.
In October, the stigma became clear, when two brothers were attacked by middle school classmates in the Bronx who screamed “Ebola!” The young boys had recently returned from Senegal.
Shoshana says that people are afraid to touch her, something she didn’t notice before. “Everywhere I go a lot of people ask me, Are you from Western Africa?” she says. “Everybody wants to make sure that you did not have any contact with the disease before you shake anybody’s hand.”
This attitude destroys the trust in relationships. Says Shoshana, sadly: “I feel like I have been rejected.”
Many African immigrants have suspicions of their own concerning Ebola. “Now they have wasted so many time that it is killing so many people in Africa. I don’t think it is fair,” says Shoshana’s friend Gloria, also from Africa, who asked that her last name be withheld. “I think that those doctors in America are involved on spreading this disease.”
Still, she hopes for the best. Says Gloria: “I wish that it will not spread in this city.”