Since the rise of Ebola cases in the United States, many Liberians, and people from other African countries, have been stigmatized and even discriminated against out of others’ fear of becoming infected with the disease.
In Texas, the Los Angeles Times reported, Liberians living in the Dallas area were taunted with, “Go back to Liberia.”
“If I am Liberian, that doesn’t mean that I have Ebola,” Carolyn Woahloe, a registered nurse, told the Times. “This is not a Liberian problem. This is a world problem.”
As the Ebola hysteria rises in the U.S., the finger-pointing, blaming and ostracizing have escalated. In response, Shoana Clarke Solomon, a Liberian photographer and TV host, created a video, “#IamaLiberianNotaVirus,” that immediately went viral.
Since the creation of the video, people have posted on social media sites selfies that show them holding signs that read, “I am a Liberian, not a virus.”
The Root had the opportunity to speak with Solomon about her project to raise awareness and erase the Ebola stigmatization.
The Root: What inspired the hashtag?
Shoana Clarke Solomon: This campaign was started by four women who were talking about how frustrating it is to be looked at as if they were diseased or walking viruses from Liberia, rather than as human beings who just happened to Liberians. Comfort Leeco wrote a post that inspired Aisha Bruce to respond. Rev. Dr. Katurah Cooper saw Aisha’s post on Facebook and suggested we do something about the spreading stigmatization. She suggested the slogan, “I am a Liberian, not a virus.” I came up with the idea of using imagery to express our feelings. I took a self-portrait with the words suggested by Dr. Cooper, written on a sheet of paper, and the rest is history. Within hours that image went viral.
TR: What or who do you blame for the stigma?
SCS: I place no blame on anyone for the stigma. It’s bound to happen, especially when people don’t take the time to learn the facts. Ebola is a deadly virus that people know very little about. Radio and television are bombarding our homes with news about Ebola every minute. It’s accompanied by dramatic music and scary images. People are hearing about all the deaths and not paying attention to how you actually get the virus. I am also grateful for the media. It’s bringing much-needed attention to Liberia and other countries that need help with ending this epidemic. Without press coverage, this situation would be far … worse.
Ebola is a global issue, not just Africa’s problem. Soon the public will stigmatize the two nurses stricken with Ebola. We pray for their full recovery and we hope that they and their families will not be socially ostracized and treated as Liberians are being treated. Stigmatization is really happening because of the lack of information. Most people I have talked to about Ebola think it’s an airborne virus and if someone sneezes, they could infect their entire community. This is far from true.
If we spread the word about how people actually contract the virus, people might react differently. The likelihood of most Americans getting the virus is very slim. A system of containment exists here, which does not exist in some other developing countries. Yes, you might see more cases here, but I don’t believe it will get out of control.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or tissue. The virus can be transmitted when an infected person’s vomit, blood or other fluids contact another person’s mouth, eyes or openings in their skin. It is not an airborne virus. A person with Ebola is contagious only when they get very ill. Most likely, a person showing symptoms of Ebola will not be strong enough to go to work, school, the mall or anywhere that requires any kind of strength. The most likely place to see an Ebola patient here in America is at the hospital or at home.
With this said, we need to continue to be cautious, but equally sensitive with words and actions to our fellow man. If you don’t want to shake my hand because I am Liberian, that’s fine and I understand, but please don’t insult me or my children.
TR: How has the response been to your campaign?
SCS: The response has been very positive. There are Liberians and non-Liberians all over the world taking pictures with their own homemade signs and posting them on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other social media sites.
TR: What do you think needs to be done to remove the stigma surrounding Ebola?
SCS: Honestly, education and time will remove the stigma surrounding all this. The purpose of this movement is simply to make people aware that even though this virus exists in our country, we are not all infected by it. We do not want our children to be stereotyped or discriminated against at school. Adults can better cope with the insults, but our children can be scarred for life. My 9-year-old has been insulted three times in two weeks for simply being a Liberian.
Stigmatization really starts with parents. We need to be sensitive about what we say around our children. I understand that people are scared and trying to be cautious. We are scared and equally cautious. We do not intend to change anyone’s feelings of fear, nor minimize the severity of the crisis. This is not our intention. We just want people to be sensitive with their actions or reactions to Liberians and others who have resided in countries afflicted by Ebola, especially the children.
Liberians have suffered enough. First it was a civil war, which lasted 14 years. As if that was not enough, we now have the Ebola virus. By the way, we did not start the virus or invent it. On the contrary, it discovered us.
To follow the hashtag on Twitter, click here.