Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arkansas, the Ebola Virus, and the License to Lie

by Nomad

When the town of Harrison, Arkansas decided to cancel a planned visit by a delegation from Ghana, was it just ignorance about Ebola or old-fashioned racism?

Lately a lot of people from the Far Right have been making some pretty irresponsible and ignorant remarks about Ebola. It's not just hysteria. Actually, it's a symptom of something worse- an outright betrayal of the public trust. 

Africa and Ebola in Perspective
Sarah Palin might not realize it but Africa is not a country. It is a continent and a mighty large one at that. Africa covers a full six percent of the Earth's total surface area and over 20  percent of the total land area. But then geography - along with any other subject you wish to name- isn't really Palin's forte.  

As the second most populated continent, Africa has a population of around 1 billion people. Depending on who you ask, there are 47 countries on the African continent, (53 if you count some of the islands off the coast.)  Of those 47 nations, only five of them have had reports of the much-discussed, much-feared disease known as Ebola.

As scary as it is, the deaths and the infection rates from the Ebola virus are not very impressive. The disease has up to now claimed more than 1,400 lives and infected over a thousand more across West Africa. 
Dreadful, terrible. And yes, it is better to do something before the situation gets any worse. Now is the time to act.

However, let's compare those Ebola numbers to malaria. Ninety percent of all malarial deaths occur in Sub saharan Africa and according to the World Health Organization,
There were an estimated 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 (uncertainty range: 135 – 287 million) and an estimated 627 000 deaths (uncertainty range: 473 000 – 789 000).
In that year, malaria killed an estimated 482 000 children under five years of age and put. an estimated 3.4 billion people are at risk. Of that number, 1.2 billion live in  high risk areas where more than one malaria case occurs per 1000 population. And your chances of catching malaria are far higher than catching Ebola.

That's not to say that Ebola presents no threat but when it comes to pandemics, there are a lot more nasty things ready to carry you off. Even the boring influenza virus, which most of us deal without much fuss, claims about 250,000 to 500,000 yearly deaths.
So, it is important to put things in their proper perspective.
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The reason I bring these facts up was because I saw a related story in a local Arkansas newspaper. A proposed tour of Harrison, Arkansas by a delegation from the nation of Ghana was canceled at the last minute due to Ebola fears. The tour was supposed to include a visit to North Arkansas Regional Medical Center, the Harrison School District and North Arkansas College.
The idea was suddenly nixed, (though who actually made that decision the article doesn't specify.)

Never mind that there has been no report of the Ebola virus in Ghana since well, since forever. In the present outbreak, the most severe yet, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and DR Congo have had cases.(Uganda saw cases back in 2012.)

So, what should have been a moment of pride for the local residents and an opportunity to demonstrate the local brand of Arkansas down-home hospitality, turned out to be source of embarrassment. It would have been a good chance to show the less developed countries the things Americans can achieve when we forget our differences and work together.
Instead it was American ignorance on full display.

As the source points out:
If medical and educational leaders can't stand up to unfounded fears (risk of Ebola entering Arkansas from any source, including countries where it has been reported, is slight, much less from a country where it hasn't been reported) who can?
A Hint of Racism
It's hard not to see an element of racism involved in the decision. Especially when you learn that the city of Harrison has had an unfortunate history when it comes to race relations. More than 100 years ago, tensions between whites and blacks erupted into all out race war. with local rioters forcing black residents out of the town. Here's one description:
The mob then went on a rampage through Harrison’s black community. Numbering about thirty, they burned down homes, shot out windows, and ordered all African Americans to vacate the town that night. Many did, fleeing to places such as Fayetteville (Washington County) and Eureka Springs (Carroll County) or to Missouri. In the following days, the people who had stayed were attacked and harassed. On October 7, 1905, J. E. Hibdon, member of a posse, shot and killed black railroad worker George Richards at the Omaha railroad camp.
Some things might have changed drastically in Harrison, but the infamy remains.
For good reasons black Americans decided not to return. Today, according to the last census, Harrison has a population 12, 943, yet only 34 of them are African-American.  
But it is more than just dead history. One of Harrison residents is Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and he maintains his recruiting office in the outlying town of Zinc

The article also notes that since April, when news of the delegation tour became public, an unnamed white supremacist (can you guess who?) began actively attempting to stir up opposition against the visit. He reportedly asked why weren't white Europeans invited instead.  As if a virus somehow infected only blacks or only Africans. (If that were the case, of course, the white people of Harrison would have nothing to fear.)

The whole incident is all a shame too- in both senses of the word. The town of Harrison, led by Mayor Jeff Crockett, has worked hard at improving its image. For example:
Harrison city leaders started a school diversity council and a task force to promote a better image. Last year they publicly celebrated Black History Month for the first time. Dushun Scarbrough is the executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr.Commission, He says, "I have never had a problem going to Harrison because the myth that you have to be out before sundown."
When a billboard appeared with the message "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White" many in the town were outraged. Students from the local college distributed fliers to protest the sign. The mayor's office put out an official statement on the issue calling the content "inflammatory, distasteful and not in line with the truth on how Harrison is a city of welcoming and tolerant citizens."

In the past Mayor Crockett has said that the town might be perceived from the outside as being racist but once people come to his town, "they will realize that this is not what Harrison is."
But in the case of the Ghanaian delegation, they never got a chance.

Naturally the decision to scrub the tour- especially when that decision was based on ignorance or (still worse) racism masquerading as medical ignorance- must have come as a blow to Crockett. 
He told reporters.
"It's hysteria in my book ..It's hysteria that's built up, and it's not based on fact. And I have trouble going along with that kind of thing."

Mayor Crockett
 He added:
"I'm just hoping that this wasn't too big a slap in the face...I just pray that it doesn't get blown out of proportion, and they realize what the concerns were and forgive us for not following through."
Amid the shame, there was some good news. 
A tiny bit anyway.
According to the article, the town of Jacksonville, Arkansas stepped up and showed what the Ghanaian visitors what Arkansas hospitality looked like. After the mayor of  that town did his own research he was satisfied  there was no risk of hosting Africans and gladly welcomed the delegation.

Whom Can We Trust? 
The decision in Harrison represents a symptom of a larger problem. It's not Harrison's fault if we are living in an afflicted society which allows people like the non-authority Donald Trump to tweet his fatuous opinions of serious subjects.   Trump suddenly fancied himself an expert on Ebola. He tweeted that people who go to "far-away" places (beyond Paris) to help are "great" but they must "suffer the consequences!" Clearly his hair was standing on end when he demanded that all flights from EBOLA infected countries stop immediately. 
(Note to Don, tweeted commands lack the prerequisite "oomph" regardless of whatever capitalized letters and exclamation points you randomly use.)

We have become a society in which a person like Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon (!), is heard arguing that missionaries infected with Ebola should not have been brought back to the United States for treatment. From a doctor?
Carson, incidentally, came up with the hare-brained idea that terrorists might use bodily fluids of Ebola patients to start some mayhem. He doesn't seem to understand that the NRA has made anything that elaborate completely unnecessary. 

The news media- whose alleged job is to inform the public, sits on the sideline, mute as a man being shaved. The silence is most noticeable when the outgoing congresswoman from Minnesota and Tea Party spokesperson Michele Bachmann begins making her usual ridiculous claims.

In July she declared that America's southern border was so porous that "people from Yemen, Iran, Iraq and other terrorist nations are making their way up through" America’s southern border. 

As delirious as she seems, Ms. Bachmann is not your average crackpot either. Bachmann was on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, with a duty to oversee of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community.
Her words are, at least in theory, supposed to carry weight. She should be an authority with credibility. She should be somebody who knows things we cannot know. 
And yet here she is implying an invasion was under way.. in real time. Without the least bit of proof. 

More bewilderingly, she wasn't alone. That same lie was something that Rick Perry and Louis Gohmert have also propagated, even though fact-checkers have basically called it tommyrot, hogwash and bunkum.

When it comes to stoking hysteria, facts have never been much of an obstacle for people like Bachmann, Perry, Trump, Palin or Gohmert. Facts are just the barking dogs to the Far Right locomotive, barrelling down the tracks to the next interview.
The "Queen of the Tea Party" Bachmann also warned:
“Not only people with potentially terrorist activities, but also very dangerous weapons are going to cross our border in addition to very dangerous drugs, and also life-threatening diseases, potentially including Ebola and other diseases like that.”
Again, absolutely no proof. It was just another successful soundbite.
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The people of Harrison are perhaps taking a bum rap. 
After all, how is it even possible to make informed decisions based on medical science, when the people who we have been given our trust, like doctors, business men and politicians, each use hysteria and xenophobic nonsense for their own political advantage? 

Still worse, this rampant stupidity generally goes unchallenged by an acquiescent mainstream media whose only mission, it seems, is to stick a microphone under the noses of every ranting imbecile. 
Don't blame the people of Harrison for that.