Ebola Virus

By Alexandra Reich
Staff Writer

As the Ebola epidemic continues in West Africa, Ebola-related anxiety spreads across the United States. While it is natural to empathize with societies dealing with the epidemic, is the paranoia of the average American citizen over contracting the disease valid? So far, there have been only five confirmed Ebola cases in the United States. Although Ebola is deadly, it is not very contagious. Ebola is contracted through coming into physical contact with an infected person’s skin, bodily fluids, or contaminated surfaces. This means that a person is unlikely to contract the disease just by being in the vicinity of an affected individual; direct contact must be made. Ebola shares many early symptoms with the much more common and less dangerous flu, and symptoms can take up to 21 days to appear. It is also noted that a person with no symptoms is not contagious, even if they are carrying the disease. With the sanitary and educational resources that the United States possesses, a severe Ebola outbreak in the United States is highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, American citizens responded to the spread of the disease in West Africa and hints of the disease in the U.S. with disproportionately heightened levels of anxiety, especially after a commercial jet passenger, a healthcare worker, was reported to have contracted Ebola from her Ebola-infected patient. Although she had called the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before her flight and reported a fever, the CDC did not prohibit her from flying. As a result, the plane’s passengers were at a slight risk of contracting a disease that is spread through direct contact.

People who suspected they could possibly come into contact with a person who had been on that flight, even if highly unlikely, began to take extreme precautions against exposing themselves to Ebola. Multiple schools with potential connections to the flight carrying the Ebola-infected health care professional were shut down for cleaning. Even a local San Diego community college student recently misinterpreted her flu symptoms as Ebola symptoms, and her class was quarantined as a result. She was later confirmed not to have contracted the disease. Are these measures unnecessary and invoking of public fear, or are these safety precautions necessary in the face of insufficient governmental control of public health? The news of the Ebola-infected person on the plane was a very terrifying, and very tangible, situation. For many U.S. residents, sitting in close quarters with complete strangers is a daily occurrence. Also, even though the CDC claims the risk is low that anyone on the flight contracted Ebola from the nurse, they did acknowledge the possibility, and they are now seeking out the remainder of the plane’s passengers for interview as a precautionary measure, adding to public anxiety.

While these measures of shutting down schools may seem like a drastic and unnecessary precaution, the CDC has proven its incompetence in the past with the handling of the initial AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the CDC was aware that the disease mostly affected homosexual men and intravenous drug users, and it could be passed from mother to unborn child [1]. These trends suggested, even before the HIV virus was scientifically dissected, that the reoccurring pattern of disease could be transferred by the use of shared needles or by bodily fluids during sexual intercourse. However, the CDC failed to put educational programs in place to help prevent the spread of the disease at this time. Therefore the spread of the AIDS virus in the U.S. was due to the government’s neglect of the situation. Looking at the research and initial treatment of AIDS illustrates the incompetency present in the United States’ public health system. The National Cancer Institute waited nearly two years before organizing research team [2]. It is logical that citizens can’t trust the United States system of public health because of its past failures.

However, the treatments of AIDS are also largely due to societal neglect, in addition to governmental neglect. The majority of the HIV-positive community in the U.S. consists of homosexual men and intravenous drug users (IDUs), many of whom were also racial minorities [3]. Homophobia and racism very likely have a hand in preventing adequate public health and medical care from being available to these populations. A prejudice existed against AIDS as a “self-inflicted” disease that used up medical resources [4].

The public’s response to AIDS was a lack of toleration, as opposed to the hyper-cautious approach to Ebola. The difference in response is mainly related to the transmission mechanism of the disease. While HIV, often transmitted sexually or by intravenous drug use, could be blamed on the individual, an Ebola patient could contracted the disease, in the public’s eye, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why the closing of schools is passed off as a preventative measure and not excessively cautious. The similarities between AIDS and Ebola lie in the failure of governmental public health institutions. To clarify, the CDC handling of AIDS was a complete and total failure, while the CDC’s handing of Ebola, largely successful in containing the disease itself, has been insufficient to maintain a sense of public safety and security. In the face of high levels of public anxiety, the CDC needs to enhance education about Ebola, but more importantly, take the necessary measures to prevent slip-ups such as the Ebola-infected nurse flying on a commercial flight. The nurse’s presence on the plane did not result in the transmission of Ebola, but it did cause the escalation of public panic.

1. Perrow, Charles and Mauro F. Guillén. The Aids Disaster. 1990. pg 3-24.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Image by Global Panorama


By Viet Tran
Contributing Writer

On August 1, the Constitutional Court of Uganda struck down a retrogressive anti-gay law that imposed a sentence of life imprisonment and criminalizes any form of sexual relations or the promotion of such relations. In a courtroom in Kampala, Uganda, five judges announced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill invalid because it had been passed during a parliamentary session that lacked quorum. Even though this is a small victory for the LGBT community in Uganda, the courts nullified the legislation in a manner that would allow a similar discriminating measure to be undertaken or for Parliament to pass the bill again.

Uganda did not always harbor this anti-gay sentiment. Under colonial law, homosexuality was illegal, but it wasn’t a political issue; rarely if ever, was someone arrested or prosecuted because people usually turned a blind eye to it. However, that atmosphere shifted completely in 2009 when American Christian evangelicals entered Ugandan communities, preaching of a ‘gay movement’ that claimed homosexuality was targeting Ugandan children in an attempt to destroy traditional values. The conservative visitors addressed the Ugandan Parliament with a compelling narrative that further fueled the doubt many Africans already have of the post-colonial west; they also stressed the importance of parental guidance in Uganda, which, with nearly 50 percent of its population under 14 years old, is the world’s most youthful nation. The movement gained even more momentum in February 2014, when President Museveni signed the bill into law. In response, many activists declared that, “President Museveni has legally murdered Ugandan gays.”

An Analysis of the Current Situation

As a response to the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the United States imposed several sanctions on Uganda. Cuts have been made to aid, funding, such as that for the construction of a health institute, stopped and even a scheduled military exercise was dropped. But will these economic sanctions be effective in stopping such discriminatory legislation or will they produce even more issues for Ugandan population? The implementation of international sanctions throughout history raises questions about their effectiveness. Dr. Kim Nossal from Queen’s University states that sanctions are legal instruments which are used to enforce law. However, Nossal suggests that these “legal instruments” merely reveal the imbalances of power in the contemporary world order. Repeatedly, the actions of the United Nations (UN) demonstrate a perpetual harm to the impoverished and the innocent, in a futile attempt to discipline their leaders. 

If we look back in history, there are various case studies depicting the ineffective use of international sanctions. The case in Libya highlights how imposed sanctions created medical complications for the civilian population. The air embargo blocked the evacuation of a large chronically ill population, and affected the delivery of medical supplies that were often damaged in transit or unable to reach Libya on time to be useful. Another example illustrating the inequities of sanctions is the 1990 embargo in Iraq. The economic sanction resulted in extreme food shortages, creating an unstable and unsustainable infrastructure that Iraq continues to struggle with to this day.

An Alternative Medium

Is there a more efficient way to address human rights violations in Uganda? I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. called “Freedom of Expression and LGBTI Rights in Africa.” Panelist Richard Lusimbo of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was an honored guest and I recall his words suggesting the need to raise greater awareness; he said that “our actions are strong in Uganda, but what about our brothers and sisters in Nigeria – before you know they may be passing this discriminating legislation.” Furthermore, I had the privilege of speaking with Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, grandson of the last monarch of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie, who said that in order to tackle human rights issues, we need an “educated populace.” In both of these statements, implied is the need for more awareness, efficient communication and the institution of effective modes of education that can bring the said awareness to communities. There is a need to promote intelligent discourse and to create avenues to understand that LGBT rights are human rights.

When Ugandan politicians and members of Parliament sponsored the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the roots of the legislation were sermons made by American Christian evangelists; they spoke of a “gay agenda” that threatened the core family values to which a majority of Ugandans strongly adhere. Clearly, the initiative to create this bill stemmed from a “discredited education” that socialized homosexuality as unacceptable. Instead of imposing international sanctions, an alternative, sustainable and progressive resolution could be the creation of liaisons who are able to provide spaces of open dialogue and representation to re-educate communities and re-socialize the dissented norm of homosexuality in Uganda.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act of 2014 to Congress in June with the hope of creating a LGBT State Department representative position; the position is meant to help coordinate LGBT policies for all bureaus of the U.S. State Department and in international programs of other federal agencies. The legislation currently has 24 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and is supported by over 10 prominent human and civil rights NGOs.

Following the vote in favor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill earlier this year, Uganda’s LGBT and HIV activists mobilized to prevent mass discrimination and protect HIV service provisions throughout Uganda. However, UN Special Envoy Speciosa Wandira-Kazibe did not utilize her platform as a UN representative to address the condemnations occurring in Africa. With one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world and the infections occurring the most among MSMs (men who have sex with men), the lack of representation for this community emphasizes the necessity for a more competent and outspoken envoy. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay publicly stated that anti-gay legislation was a violation of a “host of fundamental human rights” that “will have a negative impact on efforts to prevent transmission and provide treatment for people living with HIV.” In one instance, when Wandira-Kazibwe was asked to address a prominent Ugandan seeking asylum – she asserted her inability to take action because there lay no proof that gay Ugandan activists were actually being persecuted. Wandira-Kazibwe’s failure to represent not only the HIV/AIDS community and its activists, but also the greater population of Africa, demonstrates her tacit compliance with Museveni’s anti-gay legislation. A recommendation for her termination would be appropriate seeing as she has failed to uphold the credibility and impartiality of the position, and lacks the ability to both promote greater awareness of the issue and protect the rights of her large African constituency.

We live in a generation where media pervades and education is the foundation to understanding one another. While the current invalidation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda provides a moment of relief, we have to understand that the animosity towards homosexuals is instilled within the nation’s people. Instead of imposing economic sanctions to repudiate the legislative discrimination, the United States can take a more sustainable approach by creating a foundation to educate the people on these issues. It must be internalized in social and international norms that LGBT rights are indeed human rights, not just to us or the people of Uganda, but to the rest of the world as well.

Photo by Viet Tran