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The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place

Fear-mongering about disease has consequences.

- August 25, 2014

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority editor-in-chief Kim Yi Dionne and co-author Laura Seay investigate Western nations’ long history of associating “others” with disease. The piece was originally published at the Washington Post in 2014, when an Ebola outbreak in West Africa raised fear and suspicions in the United States that immigrants might bring the virus to America. 

In August 2014, a Newsweek magazine cover featured an image of a chimpanzee behind the words, “A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic.” This cover story is problematic for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that there is virtually no chance that “bushmeat” smuggling could bring Ebola to America. (The term is a catchall for non-domesticated animals consumed as a protein source; in the United States, anyone who hunts deer and then consumes their catch as venison is eating bushmeat without calling it that.)

While eating bushmeat is fairly common in the Ebola zone, the vast majority of those who do consume it are not eating chimpanzees. Moreover, the 2014 Ebola outbreak likely had nothing to do with bushmeat consumption.

The Europeans who colonized Africa in the late 19th century were members of a culture obsessed with classifying and categorizing the natural world. This quest built much of modern biology (think Charles Darwin and his beetle collection), but it also led to some rather unscientific justifications for the colonial project.

One of these was an idea developed by Frederick Coombs, author of Coombs’ Popular Phrenology. In the book, Coombs expounded a then-popular (and completely wrong) idea that the size, shape, and other physical characteristics of a person’s skull determined that individual’s intelligence. Coombs and his fellow phrenologists started with the assumption that anyone who wasn’t from northern and western Europe – namely, southern Europeans (who were not considered to be racially “white” at the time) and people of color – were inherently less intelligent than northern Europeans with light-colored skin.

Not surprisingly, this flawed premise led these Victorian gentlemen to reach a flawed conclusion: that people with heads that were supposedly more “ape-like” in shape were less intelligent than northern Europeans and therefore in need of the “civilizing mission” that colonization was supposed to bring. The Victorian phrenologists developed elaborate typologies supposedly showing that Africans had the most apelike – and therefore most “savage” – skull types, thus justifying their subjugation under colonial rule.

While Coombs’s book may be the best-known of the works of Victorian phrenology, the racism that his conjectures embodied was deeply embedded in the culture of most colonizing nations. Most Westerners of the time believed that people of color were “savages,” desperately in need of the benefits of modernity, Christianity, and intelligence the colonists believed they were well-suited to bring to Africa.

As societal norms tend to do, the racism embodied in the notion that African people’s skulls are more similar to those of other primates than to the skulls of other homo sapiens made its way into popular culture. And it did so in a particularly insidious way, by portraying Africans as apelike savages. Images showing Africans as apelike were commonplace. In popular culture, postcards, movies, and literature portrayed Africans as “savages” who were not as “civilized” as their colonizers.

These stereotypes even extended to children’s books. A Belgian cartoon book, Tintin au Congo, is perhaps the most famous of these representations; there, the Congolese people whom boy adventurer Tintin encounters are at times almost indistinguishable from the great apes of central Africa. And Africans with exaggerated lips and other features, depicted with extended-limb, apelike postures, appear throughout the Babar series of books.

As historian Sarah Steinbock-Pratt notes, imagery of Africans as hyper-sexualized savages – cannibals, even – persisted in cinematic representations of Africa throughout the 20th century. This long history of white people associating Africans with primates – both savage, running wild in the jungle (never mind that most Africans live nowhere near a jungle or any of the great apes) and threatening any white people who approach – has not evolved as much as we might hope in the last century.


Coombs, the Victorians, and the people who created appalling 20th century popular culture relating to Africa were engaging in a practice scholars call “othering.”

Othering happens when an in-group (in this case, white northern Europeans) treat other groups of people (the out-group, here, are Africans and other people of color) as though there is something wrong with them by identifying perceived “flaws” in the out-group’s appearance, practices, or norms.

Othering has real consequences. For example, international media othering of Somalia in the early 1990s led journalists, politicians, and academics to misidentify and oversimplify the conflict’s dynamics. Rather than understanding the complex nature of Somali society, the coverage portrayed the violence as clan warfare involving savage peoples who had hated one another since time immemorial. This misrepresentation led to two decades of misguided and ineffective global policy responses to the Somalia crisis.

Newsweek’s use of a chimpanzee to represent a scientifically invalid story about an African disease is a classic case of othering. It suggests that African immigrants are to be feared, and that apes – and African immigrants who eat them – could bring a deadly disease to the pristine shores of the United States of America.

Othering is particularly harmful in the context of a health epidemic, as one scholar notes, because it “hampers the containment of contagion during an infectious epidemic by compelling people to reject public health instructions.”

Newsweek’s piece is in the worst tradition of “Ooga-Booga” journalism, the practice of writing in exoticizing and dehumanizing ways about Africa. In case you haven’t read the Newsweek story, here’s one summary, from a political scientist on Twitter:

Fact-finding and the #NewsweekFail

A most troubling aspect of the Newsweek story is this claim:

…there is an additional risk — all but ignored by the popular press and public—lurking in the cargo hold [of trans-Atlantic flights] below: bushmeat contaminated with the virus and smuggled into the U.S. in luggage.

The reason this “risk” is ignored is because it is infinitesimally close to zero.
No scientist claims to have conclusive evidence substantiating the pathway through which Ebola crosses from animals to humans. The theory with the most traction, however, involves fruit bats (not chimpanzees) as reservoirs of Ebola virus. In-depth research studying the May-November 2007 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found:

By tracing back the initial human-human transmission events, we were able to show that, in May, the putative first human victim bought freshly killed bats from hunters to eat. We were able to reconstruct the likely initial human-human transmission events that preceded the outbreak. This study provides the most likely sequence of events linking a human Ebola outbreak to exposure to fruit bats, a putative virus reservoir.

Likewise, the Guardian reported that a team of scientists studying the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa point to “a toddler’s chance contact with a single infected bat.”

Though non-human primates – like the one featured on the Newsweek cover – have been found to have Ebola virus, “cane rats,” the delicacy described by the single informant to the Newsweek story on the availability of bushmeat in the Bronx, have not. [Editor’s sidebar on the word bushmeat: Why don’t we just call it “wild game,” the same term we use for non-domesticated meat animals sometimes hunted and consumed in the United States – some of which has also been known to threaten human handlers with disease (e.g., deer, elk, armadillos, rabbit, etc.)?]

U.S. hunter butchering a deer. (cc) John Beagle

How threatening is illegal fruit bat importation as a potential pathway for an Ebola outbreak in the United States? A study cited in the Newsweek story on illegally imported wildlife does not make any mention of fruit bats being smuggled into the country. There were also no fruit bats among specimens confiscated as part of a crackdown on (and study of) illegal importation of meats from African countries via Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. The study’s authors also characterize Paris as being at “the extreme end of a spectrum” – meaning it would not be representative of other international cities to which people from African countries may travel.

Ebola’s jump from its animal reservoir to humans is an incredibly rare event – even in those locations where the likely animal reservoirs are much more prevalent. Extrapolating the likelihood of an animal-to-human jump for Ebola in the United States – a context where there are likely no fruit bats for sale – is not only misleading, it’s irresponsible.

Newsweek is not alone in scare-mongering about the Ebola outbreak. Newsweek is not even original in its approach – pointing the finger at African immigrants smuggling bushmeat – as British and Swedish newspapers have previously published similar stories.

Associating immigrants and disease in America

There is a persistent association of immigrants and disease in American society. The Immigration Act of 1891 explicitly excluded from entry to America all “persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.” Fast-forward one hundred years and we see Haitian refugees who tested positive for HIV “confined like prisoners” at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay – despite the knowledge at least five years earlier that HIV was not casually communicated. In the 2003 SARS epidemic, New York City’s Chinatown was identified as a site of contagion and risk despite never having a single case of SARS.

Specific to Ebola, an earlier TMC post reported on the baseless concerns raised by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a retired physician, that migrant children crossing into the United States from Mexico were likely carrying Ebola – as well as other “deadly diseases” that are “not indigenous to this country.”

The Newsweek story implies increased vulnerability to Ebola in the United States. and psychology research suggests that will likely amplify negative reactions and xenophobic attitudes towards people heuristically associated with the disease – in this case, the many African migrants living in the Bronx (and potentially elsewhere in the United States) accused by Newsweek of liking bushmeat. Never mind that Newsweek’s investigative reporters were never able to locate any for sale.

Relatedly, a 2014 review of public attitudes toward immigration by political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins points out how prejudice and ethnocentrism can engender support for more restrictive immigration attitudes.

The Newsweek story could generate additional prejudice against African migrants, a population that already suffers from greater prejudice than other immigrant groups. In the psychology study referenced above, researchers found that simply manipulating the geographical origin of a hypothetical immigrant group – from Eastern Africa to Eastern Asia to Eastern Europe – yielded significant differences in attitudes in a study population toward the immigrant group.

eastern immigrants
Figure from Jason Faulkner et al., “Evolved Disease-Avoidance Mechanisms and Contemporary Xenophobic Attitudes” (2004).

Fear-mongering narratives about Ebola circulating in the popular media can also have a serious effect on knowledge and attitudes about Ebola. Though there are no cases of person-to-person infection in the United States, a 2014 poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reports 39 percent of Americans believed there will be a large Ebola outbreak in the United States, with more than a quarter of Americans concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola within the next year. A similar poll conducted for Reason-Rupe reveals four in 10 Americans said an Ebola outbreak in the United States was likely, with conservative Americans more likely to say an outbreak was likely. These two national surveys show Americans are grossly overestimating their risk of infection.

The long history of associating immigrants and disease in America and the problematic impact that has on attitudes toward immigrants should make us sensitive to the impact of “othering” African immigrants to the United States in the midst of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Scare-mongering about infinitesimal risks in one context serves no purpose to the greater good of trying to curb disease transmission and relieve people’s suffering in another context.

Co-author Laura Seay (@TexasinAfrica) is a political scientist whose research studies African politics, conflict, and development, with a focus on central Africa. She has written for Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English. We thank Adia Benton, Melissa Browning, Michelle Carey, Mohammad Hamze, Meredith Killough, Kennedy Opalo, Charles Thomas, and Ben Witt for their suggestions and assistance with this post.

Note: Updated Sept. 14, 2023.

Image: Health workers put their gloves on before checking patients at the hospital. World Bank / Vincent Tremeau, January 16, 2019, Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo.