Muhidin Libah, who is from Somalia and now lives in Lewiston, said he is aware that elsewhere in the U.S., some people have avoided contact with Africans because of the Ebola outbreak.

“People most of the time think all Africa is the same. … When you’re black, you’re black,” said Libah, spokesman for the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn.

But he has experienced no stigma associated with the disease.

“I meet more white Americans than Africans in my day-to-day and I haven’t had any bad experiences like that,” he said.

In Dallas, employers have sent African workers home and pizza delivery drivers are avoiding some apartment buildings out of fear of the disease, according to published reports. Dallas is the site of the country’s only fatal Ebola case – a man who had recently come there from Liberia. It’s also where two nurses treating him contracted the disease.

In Washington, African immigrants say they have been unfairly stigmatized, with people refusing to shake hands with them or sit near them on the bus, The Washington Post reported.

Advertisement

WILL FEAR OUTPACE EDUCATION?

The issue seemed to hit home this week when a person was held for observation at Maine Medical Center in Portland with some of the symptoms of Ebola, though the patient ultimately did not have the disease.

In Maine, there have been reports of schoolchildren teasing African immigrant students in connection with the disease, but representatives of several Maine immigrant communities in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn said they have not experienced any negative interactions because of the Ebola outbreak.

McDonald Johnson came to the United States from Liberia 15 years ago. People who know him have expressed only concern on behalf of his family back home, he said.

“I haven’t experienced … the negative,” said Johnson, a Westbrook resident.

There are concerns that as fear outpaces education, some people’s misperceptions about the disease, their vulnerability to it and the way it is spread may take over.

Advertisement

A school district in Franklin County has placed a teacher on leave for three weeks to appease worried parents who learned the teacher had just returned from a conference in Dallas, a city of 1.2 million people.

Portland schools and hospitals in Lewiston-Auburn are reaching out to residents to make sure they are informed about the disease.

“There’s a yearning for more information. Fear starts with the unknown,” said Dr. Kolawole Bankole, minority health coordinator for the Portland Public Health Division. Some people have asked him whether they should stop attending community meetings to avoid possible contamination.

Hospitals in Lewiston and schools in Portland are conducting community outreach to educate people about the disease.

Portland schools this week sent information home to families about safeguards to protect against infectious diseases and asking that students be kept home if they area sick. The letter, translated into seven different languages, also says people from Africa are at no greater risk of contracting the disease.

“We have many students from Africa. We have very few from West Africa and from the countries most affected by this,” said Tina Veilleux, Portland’s school nurse coordinator.

Advertisement

Veilleux said that in the middle school grades, where there have been instances of teasing students from Africa about the virus, some teachers are instructing students about the science and public health aspects of the outbreak.

‘STEREOTYPING IS INTOLERABLE’

“We hope to really allay any fears. Fear is really our biggest enemy with this,” she said.

In a statement issued to city staff, Portland’s acting city manager, Sheila Hill-Christian, wrote: “Our city has long welcomed individuals and families from other cultures around the world. Some may be from areas where Ebola is present. While we all should be aware of the signs and symptoms of possible infectious diseases, there is no need to presume that someone’s appearance might mean they carry an infectious disease.”

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement: “Clearly, stereotyping is intolerable and while we are not aware of any specific case of disparate treatment of African immigrants related to this issue, we know that one of the most critical ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment is by being consistent in how protocols are being applied.”

Chuck Gill, vice president for public affairs at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, noted that both Portland and Lewiston-Auburn have significant African populations but they are mostly from East Africa, not West Africa, where the disease has occurred.

Advertisement

“We want to reassure everybody that we’re sensitive to all the residents of the community and make sure people have good information about where this has been a problem,” he said. “It’s an issue that should unite communities, not divide them.”

GEOGRAPHY OF AFRICA

A lesson in the immensity of Africa might help.

The continent, home to more than 50 countries, is significantly larger than North America, although it does not look that way when distorted by its projection onto a flat map.

The majority of African immigrants who have settled in Maine are from Somalia and Sudan, in eastern Africa, or countries in central Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The capital of Somalia is 3,800 miles from the capital of Liberia, greater than the distance between Portland and Los Angeles. Portland is closer to Dallas than Monrovia, Liberia, is to Kinshasa, in Congo.

Advertisement

Even identifying the region as “West Africa” can be misleading. Pious Ali, a member of Portland’s school board, is from Ghana, one of the countries in that region. He says referring to West Africa is similar to saying the West Coast of the United States.

“West Africa is a lot of countries and a lot of people,” said Ali. He said people need to consider which country someone has been in, not the continent or region.

Rachel Talbot-Ross, spokeswoman for the NAACP Portland, said she has not heard any reports of Maine people being discriminated against in relation to the Ebola outbreak, but it’s worth being vigilant.

“It is bordering on hysteria. Whenever you get that ‘group think’ you might find some of the stereotypes. It is highly possible people will make an association between those who come from that part of the world and this horrific disease,” she said.

Talbot-Ross said she has traveled to West Africa and is headed to Dallas for a conference in three weeks.

“I’m not going to be influenced by that hysteria and not travel to either one of those places again,” she said.

Advertisement

Julie Sullivan, director of the public health division for the city of Portland, said the chances of someone contracting Ebola in Maine are remote.

“It does sound very scary, but it’s not something that people need to be afraid of in their everyday life,” Sullivan said, adding the flu is much more contagious and kills more people.

“Just wash your hands. And don’t touch anybody else’s blood. That’s always a good practice.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: Mainehenchman


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.