Mali and Manhattan: “So Ebola’s in Manhattan. Now it’s touched my two homes.”

So Ebola’s in Manhattan. Now it’s touched my two homes. Thursday we heard that the virus had made it to Mali, which I’d figured it would. How could it not? One way or another, in the tightly bound region, it could only travel, and it did so inside the embattled body of a two-year old girl, first to Bamako then to Kayes. Friday we learned that a doctor who lives here in Harlem, one block over, is the first confirmed Ebola case in the city. He’ll get the best care possible, and the Brooklyn bowling alley where he played is being disinfected. An unfortunate photo had her—is it her, or a months-old stock photograph?—being lugged like cordwood. She’s since passed—ala k’a dayoro sumaya—but he’s surviving. Neither the case of the sick doctor nor that of the little girl should be surprising.

Ebola’s already been here, just not among the affluent. It’s already hit, indirectly, the West African communities—the Liberians of Staten Island, the Guineans of Harlem and the Bronx, the Sierra Leoneans… No one is sick, but that doesn’t mean that no one suffers. Weeks ago a friend of ours in the Bronx lost her sister and several members of her family. They’d fallen ill in Guinea, down in the ‘parrot’s beak’ where the three hardest-hit countries meet. Her brother-in-law came home infected from Sierra Leone, and in dying he took one of his wives and several children with him. Perhaps pushed by such stories, the local West African associations are well out ahead of this. They’ve been talking ebola for weeks, looking for ways to help at home and educating people here about how to avoid transmission and what symptoms to watch out for amongst returning travellers. So far, so good. It seems like they’ve all got an endless flow of sanitizing hand gel, which ought to at least delay the flu season. I don’t know first-hand what the picture is like in Bamako, but local doctors and primary care-oriented NGOs have been gearing up, coordinating, educating. They’re on the case. I’m impressed by their activities, even optimistic, but with one big shadowy doubt: rumor and panic corroded and convulsed Bamako in the political crisis of 2012. Let’s hope that, both here and there, the voices of those who think clearly and speak calmly will carry the day.

We can see what’s happening. Whether it’s a crime or simply a damn shame, I can’t decide, but how and why is Ebola spreading? For a lack of buckets, gloves and chlorine. And maybe an abundance of love and generosity. The caretakers will be hardest hit, the mothers, aunts, grandmothers and sisters especially. Because who wipes the brows and empties the buckets of the ill in West African households? The same people who do it at home do it in the hospitals, which have always functioned around the idea that the primary caretakers are family members, and that food is home-cooked.

Here, we’re not so high-minded. The conversation is not about love; it’s about fear (but oddly, not about money—is that a measure of how afraid people are?). Our mayor gave an authoritative and calming press conference flanked by medical professionals, including an excellent health commissioner. But he’s not up for re-election soon. Our governor is, so he threw fear back in the mix in order to pretend to keep us safe from a danger that scarcely exists. Now returning health care workers will face a quarantine order. Nice work! Skilled and generous people will be discouraged from going where they’re needed, and we’re back to making decisions that are either based on fear or play on the fears of other people (which is worse?).

So, Mr. Governor, should I be afraid? Looks like the good doctor and I live in the same neighborhood, work at the same university, and use the same subway station. Oh, and the health commissioner called him a “good historian” (meaning he kept good records). But wait, I’m an historian. Should I be even more worried? Maybe I’m not a good one, though—would I then have less to fear? She also said he’s a very responsible person. In that case, we don’t have as much in common as I thought, and I should be okay… This is absurd.

Friday, I watched the mayor’s press conference in a Guinean restaurant. One man who’s there to pick up his take-out says that of course the disease will spread, because it travels on the back of money and we are all moving around looking for money. In a room full of immigrants from West Africa’s effected countries, no one objects, but no one seems worried either. Later, the governor tells us to worry more. But who should I be afraid of? Should schools exclude African students (this happened in New Jersey—talk about missing a “teachable moment”)? Should the authorities ban flights from West Africa? Should other cities ban flights from New York? Maybe we should limit them—from New York to Freetown, Monrovia, Conakry, with onward service to Dallas? Air Ebola… This, too, is absurd. I know what I’m afraid of: the rank idiots in my own government.

The question ought to be, who should I be more afraid for? My neighbor the doctor will likely recover, like one of the nurses from Dallas has done. I hope he will live to bowl again. The poor girl in Kayes won’t be the last person in Mali to fall ill with Ebola; it’s hard to imagine and it might be too much to ask for. Let’s hope she’s the last to succumb, and that our collective common sense survives. Maybe then we can go on one step further, in West Africa and in New York, and ask why the conversation here is about what the government will do, while in thinking of West Africa, many look instinctively to the NGOs. Could we then go even further, trash the distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ and put the public back into public health?

Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. He is author of two books, ' Native Sons' (2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel (2015).

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