Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was tactful and circumspect when he questioned the way health officials and medical staffers handled the care and treatment of Ebola victim Thomas Duncan. Jackson carefully avoided using the “R” word.
R as in racism but others, many others, and that includes Duncan’s family, flatly charged that he was virtually left to die because he was black.
To drive home the charge of a racial double standard for black victims, the case of the two white American medical workers stricken with Ebola and rushed back from Liberia and given the rare drug, ZMapp that supposedly saved their lives is repeatedly cited.
The charge of one standard of treatment for blacks and another for whites is understandable, but with Duncan and Ebola it doesn’t hold up. A bevy of medical and health officials with no connection to the hospital, as well as Liberian officials and many of those close to him, agreed that given what was known about Duncan’s condition at the time, he was given the best care and treatment available that included team of doctors and nurses, and a possible saving drug infusion. The story of the Americans who were saved made news not just because they were the first known Americans hit with the virus. But, it was because they were treated with ZMapp and lived. This instantly set off loud protests and shouts of racism, and indifference, and that American health and medical officials outright turn their back on Africans there and here who are dying from the disease. The brutal reality is there is no known cure for the virus once contracted. At best, there’s only ZMapp. The problem with this is that it’s still regarded as an experimental drug and is on the ground floor in use in the treatment of Ebola. The supplies of the drug globally are severely limited. There’s no evidence that Duncan was not given the drug because of race. The hospital’s claim that it had no supply of the drug on hand or any prospect of getting it in time to save his life rings true.
Even if the experts on the disease hadn’t uttered a peep about the way Duncan was handled versus that of the two Americans, there would be no racial investment in allowing someone who carries one of the world’s deadliest and highly transmittable diseases to wallow in the disease without pulling out all stops to treat them if for no other reason than the extreme danger it would pose to the public if they didn’t. Even before the Duncan case captured headlines and stirred the charge of racism, every major official and unofficial world health organization had rushed teams of doctors and medical staff at great risk to their personal safety to West Africa. They also flew in mountains of medical equipment, support facilities, and drugs to clinics and hospitals in the stricken West African nations. President Obama repeatedly made it clear that Ebola was not just a West African problem, but a global problem, and backed up his words by placing hundreds of American troop and medical boots on the ground in Liberia. Without that aid and the timeliness that the aid was provided, the death toll in these nations almost certainly would have soared far higher.
The charge of a racial double standard, though, can’t be separated from the very real sordid and criminal history of the colossal indifference and even malicious neglect of the health needs of African and African-Americans. There’s the infamous Tuskegee experiment in which black males suffering from syphilis were deliberately allowed to suffer and die for four decades with the knowing consent of the U.S. Public Health Service without any treatment. And there’s the still wildly racially disparate accessibility of health care and treatment between blacks and whites here. There’s cause for suspicion that when a dreaded disease such as Ebola strikes and the visible face of the victims are black then the racial double standard instantly kicks in.
Yet it’s precisely because the disease is so feared and deadly to all irrespective of their race or class that American and western health officials have little choice but to act with all available resources. It’s in part self-interest and self-protection, and in greater part the rude awakening that this is not 1940, or 1950 when the world was a much smaller place. The ease and accessibility of global travel, the non-stop mobility of travelers and immigrants, and the quantum leap in interpersonal contacts between peoples across all ethnic lines in America have radically changed the social, cultural and health picture for Americans and indeed the world.
There well may be more cases of Ebola that turn up in the U.S. If that happens, eyes will be closely watching to see just how they are treated and whether the victims are black or white won’t matter. There will be murmurs and even shouts again of a racial double standard. When it does the racism charge will still be just as overblown.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and on thehutchinsonreportnews.com