Ebola, Racism, And ‘The Best Healthcare Money Can Buy’

For the past three weeks, the American media has been dominated by reports on Ebola. The reports were initially hard to find about far away countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia. The coverage was almost analytical and focused on the effects of the growing Ebola epidemic on the citizens and economies in the countries hit hardest by the epidemic.

Then the reports shifted to aid workers who contracted the Ebola virus in West African countries and returned to the United States for treatment. Finally, in late September, a Liberian man who recently immigrated to the United States became the first patient to be diagnosed with the Ebola virus in an American hospital. He also became the first person in the United States to die from the Ebola virus.

The fact that Thomas Duncan died from Ebola isn’t unimaginable. Of the more than 9,000 cases of Ebola in seven countries (including the United States and Spain), over 4,500 have died after contracting the virus. What’s more troubling is that of those 4,500 the vast majority have been African, while the handful of Caucasians who contracted the disease have survived.

The issue was first brought up in The Washington Post by Arthur L. Caplan. Caplan noted that the two American aid workers who had contracted Ebola, both of whom were caucasian, received an experimental drug that is believed to have helped them recover. According to Caplan, it isn’t a case of prejudice, it’s privilege. The aid workers received better care because they had the fortune of being Americans receiving treatment in America, rather than healthcare workers operating in a system already crumbling under the weight of so many patients with Ebola, which when untreated comes on fast, hits hard and can be very deadly.

It’s tempting to hold up Thomas Duncan as proof that Caplan’s argument is wrong and say that racism absolutely played a part in his treatment. After all, Thomas Duncan not only has the dubious distinction of being the first man in the United States to be diagnosed with Ebola, he was also the first and only person in the Untied States to die from the disease. Except, Thomas Duncan received the same experimental drug that both Caucasians aid workers received.

Unfortunately, there is an additional slant to Duncan’s story that put him at a disadvantage the others who have had Ebola and received treatment in the United States didn’t have, when he sought medical treatment, Duncan was misdiagnosed and sent home. That failure by the medical team taking care of him ultimately cost Thomas Duncan his life. Was it racism? Duncan’s nephew believes so. Was it classism? Caplan seems to believe so. Was it simply a failure on the part of the American health care system?

In the past month, there have been attempts to politicize Ebola. There have been attempts to turn the microscopic Ebola virus into the newest hot button issue. People who contract Ebola become either heroes who care for their fellow man in spite of the dangers or villains who thought only of themselves and put others at risk. The ultimate villains have become the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The truth is, all three contributed to the death of Thomas Duncan, but it was Ebola that killed him. The truth is that, despite the attempts to politicize the situation, fear of the Ebola virus is a natural reaction. The truth is that, at least for now, the average American is more likely to contract influenza than the Ebola virus.

[Image Via Reuters]