While waiting for her flight home from Atlanta recently, Oretha Bestman-Yates, president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA), answered a phone call from a reporter. When the word “Ebola” was used, two women seated next to her got up and moved.
Though they may be thousands of miles away, people in “Little Liberia,” a community in Staten Island home to the most densely populated Liberian community outside Liberia, feel connected to the Ebola health crisis. Almost all know of family and friends who have died back home. The growing fear over the virus has also translated to an increased sense of stigmatization among West Africans living in New York.
“There is a narrative out there now that if you are Liberian, people should be afraid of you,” says Emmanuel Wheagar, co-chair of the Liberian Ebola Fund.
A Liberian man, who asked to remain anonymous, was working at an accounting firm when he heard mumbles about a client who had said, “stay away from Liberians.”
“If that keeps going on, it’s going to oppress the community,” he said. “It drove home to me that this is what people are thinking of Liberians.”
Wheagar says that the most disturbing issue is that the news media has not driven home the notion that Liberians in the U.S. should not be stigmatized because, other than a handful of cases, Ebola is not here.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a special adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio, recently said the level of fear growing among people about the virus is understandable, though “the chances of seeing anything like the calamity in western Africa is profoundly remote.”
Yates says the anxious fear around the Ebola health crisis can nevertheless be sensed among community members in Little Liberia as well.
“Liberians like to embrace and show affection when we meet each other,” Yates says. “We kind of slowed that down. We know we don’t have it, but we still have to be cautious.”
Wheagar agrees that people are scared in Little Liberia. “If you have a family member coming, you are happy they are coming. But you have a concern that they many have been exposed,” he says.
Community leaders in Staten Island send out regular text messages to 700 Liberians living in New York, updating them on efforts aimed at fighting Ebola and ending the stigmatization of West Africans. The last text from Wheagar included a photo with Congressman Michael Grimm.
With flu season now underway, an illness with symptoms very similar to Ebola, educational efforts are urgent. West Africans who are sick can conceivably begin avoiding hospitals for fear of being placed in unnecessary isolation. Both Yates and Wheagar discussed this matter with Grimm, along with the idea of bringing African doctors who have more experience and knowledge about African diseases in general to hospitals in New York City.
Yates recounts how a man from Guinea with malaria, a noncontagious disease, was recently kept for two weeks in quarantine at a nearby hospital.
The stigma of being a West African when you go to the hospital must be erased, says Wheagar, though Yates admits, “You don’t want to blame them because they are just trying to be on track.”
Nick Iacono, Congressman Grimm’s press secretary, says that a letter was also recently sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requesting an infectious disease expert be sent to the district to meet with community leaders, local hospital representatives, elected officials and other stakeholders. The focus is on preparedness.
New York City has a large population of West African immigrants and John F. Kennedy Airport is a hub for international travelers. Because of this, Iacono says that the public must be made aware of the risks and the signs of the virus to forestall anxiety and misinformation.
“We want to prevent any major panic, especially as we enter flu season,” Iacono says.
As part of its campaign against Ebola, the New York City Department of Health is hanging posters in different languages all over the city to raise awareness of the virus. Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner, said that measures like this could help ensure that New York’s health care community is prepared to handle potential cases.
But the information posters currently only hang in New York City emergency rooms. Wheagar says that if there were fliers coming from the health department, they should be hanging at events like last week’s “War Against Ebola” fundraising concert at Christ Assembly Lutheran Church.
“It has the largest congregation of Liberians,” he says.
Besides actively texting community members about Ebola updates, talking to government officials and health department representatives, hosting educational forums and organizing fundraisers, community leaders in Little Liberia have also taken more humble approaches. They pray.
Walters James Weah, the administrator of Temple of Faith Church, says parishioners have been praying and fasting in support of Ebola’s victims, many of whom are family and friends of Staten Island residents.
“They are praying to God to help end the curse on the people of Liberia,” Weah says. “They aren’t saying it’s an act of God, but they are asking God for mercy.”
Yates’s voice strains. “It’s very, very serious.”