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 Siru (Rose) Zhu
Staff Writer

In 2009, a Nigerian immigrant in Guangzhou, China, died during a police immigration raid. The man jumped out of a second-floor shop window in order to escape the passport check, because he had overstayed his visa. His death resulted in a protest that involved around 100 African immigrants calling for justice in front of a police station in Guangzhou. While this incident highlighted the tensions between the African immigrants in Guangzhou and the local police, it also drew attention to the poor living conditions and tenuous status of China’s undocumented African immigrants.

Guangzhou now has the largest African community in Asia, with at least 100,000 African immigrants. The exact population figures vary depending on the source, due in part to the difficulty of gathering accurate information on a population who live on the margins of the larger Chinese community. A large number of African businessmen and traders, mostly from West Africa, moved to the city in the late 1990s. Most of these immigrants were involved with international trade, buying cheap products in China and selling them back to their home countries at higher prices. Since then, increasing numbers of African businessmen from other parts of the continent have migrated to Guangzhou due to its status as an international trading center, as well as “one of China’s biggest manufacturing hubs,” with nearby textile and electronics factories.

Some of the African immigrants have valid visas or local residence permits; many face difficulties getting their visa extensions approved and are forced to overstay their visas, remaining in China illegally. African immigrants usually enter China with short-term business visas that last four to six weeks, while three-to-six month or one-year visas are reserved for regular travelers who “have been in Guangzhou for over a decade.” Despite having valid visas, some immigrants find themselves overwhelmed by the adjustment to life in a foreign metropolis, and fail to “take advantage of the mobility provided by a valid visa.” [1] As the renewal deadline approaches, many find it difficult to extend their visas. Between the choice of returning home and staying clandestinely in China, many immigrants choose the latter because they simply cannot afford to go back to their home countries. Additionally, there is pressure from family members and friends back home who harbor expectations that immigrants will naturally “accumulate wealth abroad.” [2] Or as one Nigerian expatriate put it,“When you go back to Nigeria, you are expected to ride a car, buy a house, set up a business. If you don’t do that quickly, you are recognized as a loser.” [3]

In their home countries, immigrants apply for their visas through the local Chinese embassy under the auspices of the central government in Beijing. Yet once in Guangzhou, they have to apply for a visa extension through the local government, which does not have the same directives or procedures as the central authority in Beijing. This difference in standards for granting visas causes difficulties for immigrants who need visa extensions. “You apply for your visa extension with the local government who decide not to extend it,” said one Nigerian immigrant, who noted Guangzhou extends very few Nigerian visas, “…then you face a problem when you overstay and become illegal.”

A recent change in migration policy has made the problem even worse, and the lives of these immigrants even harsher. Previously, immigrants would travel to other cities, which have lower standards of visa extension, to extend them before they expire, and then move back to Guangzhou. But the Chinese government closed that loophole by “requiring that applicants live in the province where they received their visa extension.” Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province; if immigrants want to stay in Guangdong province, they have to apply for visa extensions through registries in Guangzhou. Legitimate traders who want to stay and do business are often turned down by these registries, which approve visa extensions at very low rates.

Losing legal status causes many problems for both African immigrants and the local community. African immigrants with expired visas cannot relocate or travel and lose the ability to obtain legal accommodations and jobs. Many immigrants only go out early in the morning or late at night in order to avoid local police, who frequently check their passports. Without valid paperwork, these immigrants cannot travel to other cities through common transportation systems, which require valid passports and visas, and cannot participate in legitimate businesses with local people. Their lapsed visa status, coupled with the fact that some cannot afford to go back to their home countries, lead many African immigrants to resort to illegal activities, such as drug trafficking in underground markets, to survive. Yet this severely undermines the security and social order of the local community, as well as the reputation of African immigrants generally; ultimately this process leads to increased restrictions on visa extensions. The limits on visa renewals, combined with poor living conditions and other factors in Guangdong, results in a hostile environment for African entrepreneurs, with some choosing the international markets in Vietnam, Thailand or Turkey instead. The decreasing number of traders entering China has also led to the decline of local Chinese economies; African traders are the main clients for many local businesses. “From 2006 to about 2010, this warehouse used to be completely full all the time…” but inventory has dropped by 75 percent, said one Chinese shipping agent.

Many African businesspeople in China are trying to make a living through legitimate business practices. But some of them are forced to live “underground” in squalid conditions and resort to illegal activities because they do not have valid documents required for the legal operation of a business and must therefore avoid local police. “I would stop tomorrow if immigration gave me a visa. I go to church, I love my family, I am a good man, but when they make you illegal you can only do illegal things,” one Nigerian immigrant surmised, explaining the reasons why some Africans immigrants resort to drug trafficking. Many undocumented immigrants live in small suburban bedrooms that often house seven or eight other people, because they either cannot afford better housing, or cannot rent better apartments without valid visas. Their abilities to pursue legitimate activities and participate fully in society are largely limited by the difficulty to get a visa extension.

The undocumented immigrants who want to return to their home countries are discouraged from coming forward and seeking help from local governments because, if caught, they face prison time and a fine of more than RMB 5,000 (US$750), and are required to pay the costs of repatriation. [4] Most of them cannot afford the cost of traveling back home, so they are forced to contact family members to send money to pay for their detentions or deportations. Those with insufficient funds to be released may stay imprisoned for months or even years. [5] The harsh treatment and high costs of prison are infamous among African immigrants. BBC has reported 30 Nigerian deaths in Chinese prisons; at that time only 700 Nigerians were imprisoned in China. It costs around $300 a month—twice as much as on the outside—to buy extra food for adequate nutrition in prison, due largely to inflated prices for food. [6] Without the money to leave China, and facing potential imprisonment by staying, African immigrants must remain in the shadows of the larger population.

There are some government services beginning to cater to China’s African immigrants. For example, government offices in the areas in which most immigrants live are now providing services in Chinese, English, French, and Arabic. China has long been a single-culture state– its laws were not designed for a multicultural population. “The backbone of Chinese immigration legislation is the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens,” which was adopted in 1985. However, the law, and the institutions that are implementing it, was not designed for the current situation of high immigration volumes, such as the case of African immigrants in Guangzhou. [7] The Chinese People’s Consultative Conference generated a report on the situation in 2008, and the government now has plans to reform the regulatory system. The report points to many problems regarding the immigration pressure including “unreliable statistics, weak enforcement of tenancy registration, lack of control over the housing market for foreigners, insufficient cooperation between government bodies and shortage of resources for law enforcement…” [8] While the report addresses the problems caused by large numbers of undocumented immigrants, it does not address the fundamental problem of a system that makes them “illegal” in the first place.

It is reasonable for the government to set visa restrictions for immigrants because immigrants might affect local employment or increase the cost of housing and education. However, the disparity of standards can only lead to immigrants being trapped in the city. In order to solve the fundamental problem, the alignment of the standards of the central and local migration registries is very important. The central migration registry in Beijing should consider raising its visa-granting standards by taking the local effects of the immigrants into account, while the local authority in Guangzhou should lower the standards of granting visa extensions to qualified, legitimate traders. The government should do thorough background research of the applicants before granting them visas. Once the applicants qualify for visas granted by the central migration registry, the local government should not set high standards of visa extensions when they re-apply. The government should issue long-stay visas to some “regular and legal immigrants in accordance with the duration of their work contract or business purpose.” [9] If they are doing legitimate business in Guangzhou, the government should not close the door on them, especially if doing so hurts the local economy in the process.

Photo by Xianyi Shen


[1] Haugen, H. Ø., “Nigerians in China: A Second State of Immobility.” International Migration 50 (2012): 65–80. Wiley. Web.20 Apr. 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cisse, Daouda. “South-South migration and trade: African traders in China.” Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University (2013): n. pag. Policy Briefing. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.