In 1989, at the height of Aids epidemic, Susan Sontag reflected on the metaphorical power of Aids and its ability to elicit horror and fear. “Any important disease, whose physical etiology is not understood, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance,” she argued.
First, the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor. Then, in the name of the disease (that is, using it as a metaphor), that horror is imposed on other things.
In Americans’ panicked reactions to Ebola we are now seeing similar metaphorical processes at work. Even before Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man now lying critically ill in a Dallas hospital, set foot on American soil, Ebola had a rare ability to set pulses – and prejudices – racing. It helped of course that the virus was like something out of a Hammer Horror film, reducing its victims to a bloody pulp. As the death toll mounted and pictures of victims lying abandoned on the streets of Monrovia and Freetown were beamed into our homes, the shocking images could not help but provoke primordial fears of the ‘jungle’ and Western anxieties about racial contamination.
No one knew for certain where the virus came from or how it had manged to jump species, but most likely it had something to do with the African predilection for bush meat, which, depending on your ideological perspective, was either a legitimate local cultural practice or a disgusting and dangerous barbarism.
Some, like the conservative columnist Ann Coulter, thought that medical go-gooders had no business venturing into Africa’s ‘disease-ridden cesspools’ in the first place. Others, like Donald Trump, thought anyone contracting the virus should be left to take their chances in those same cesspools, tweeting that the US had its own problems and ‘could not allow Ebola infected people back.’
Given that Ebola has a mortality rate of 70 percent and that Liberia’s health system, makeshift at the best of times, is now at breaking point, such sentiments amount to a virtual death sentence. Little wonder then that two weeks ago Duncan misled Liberian emigration officials by lying about his exposure to the virus and boarding a flight bound for Brussels and the US.
A few days before he ticked ‘no’ on the airline questionnaire, Duncan had carried a pregnant woman infected with Ebola from a taxi to her apartment building in Monrovia after she had been refused admittance to a local clinic. He must have known there was a good chance he had also been contaminated. But he would also have noted how American missionaries and journalists who had fallen ill in similar circumstances had been airlifted out of Liberia for life-saving treatment.
Having been turned away from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas when he first presented with symptoms on September 25th, only to be admitted to an isolation ward three days later after vomitting in the carpark of an apartment building where he’d been staying with his girlfriend, Duncan’s case has sparked furious recriminations about who is to blame, as well as hysterical speculation about who else may now be at risk. With the etiology of the disease still poorly understood, and no serology test or vaccine available, Ebola, like Aids before it, has become ‘awash with significance’ and pregnant with metaphorical possibilities. But, if so, what signifiers and what metaphors?
Well dread and horror certainly, but also xenophobia and racism. It doesn’t help that ‘Ey-bo-lah’ sounds like a voodoo chant or that the disease takes its name from a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) – Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’.
As reports of other suspect cases flash across the cable news channels and the calls for a ban on travel from west Africa threaten to drown out more reasoned debate, Liberian communities across America are girding themselves for the backlash. Already in Minneapolis one Liberian restauranter has seen fit to change the name of her business, deleting ‘African’ from its title. Elsewhere in the city, people are refraining from hugs or customary fist bumps so palpable is the fear of contamination.
Meanwhile, in Dallas it took five days to find a cleaning company willing to remove the dirty bedsheets from the apartment where Duncan had been living. All that time, Duncan’s girlfriend, her daughter and two boys who had been staying in the apartment were placed under de facto house arrest as health officials scrambled to find them alternative accommodation. It does not say much for America’s health system or the preparedness of state and federal agencies to deal with an epidemic, that in the end it was a Dallas faith group who came to the rescue by providing them with an apartment where they could sit out the 30-day quarantine away from the prying eyes of the media and those calling for their deportation.
Little wonder that few Americans believe the assurances of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they have the outbreak under control and that there is no risk of a viral equivalent of 9/11 on American soil. Like the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Ebola has exposed the porosity of American airspace and the homeland’s vulnerability to exotic pathogens that, thanks to international air travel, can now be any place on the globe within 24 hours.
At a time when America is struggling to face down far more serious threats to its security such as ISIS, Ebola may strike many as a distraction and a sideshow. But while Ebola does not decapitate its victims, the virus is just as undiscriminating and arguably poses a far greater existential threat. That is why until we find a way of stemming the outbreak in west Africa or succeed in making a vaccine, Ebola will retain its metaphorical power and the ‘horror’ will continue to be imposed on ‘other things’.