Bioethics: Preparing for the Unknown

I’m looking forward to attending the conference “Bioethics: Preparing for the Unknown” hosted by WMU Ethics Center this week; I’m especially looking forward to hearing from the excellent keynote speakers, Dr. Insoo Hyun and Dr. Richard Sharp on CRISPR and precision medicine, respectively.

I’m heading out today from Orlando with a coat in hand for the Michigan weather.

I will present a paper entitled “Public Health and Risk Prevention: The Case of Ebola.” Here’s an excerpt:

I contend that an unintended consequence of public health discourse surrounding risk prevention in the case of Ebola virus disease is the deepening construction of African persons as inherently risky or vulnerable. Meanwhile, those in the West conceive of themselves as risk managers of these populations, rather than as vulnerable themselves. Indeed, researchers found that stigma plays a role in misunderstandings with regard to the transmission and prevention of Ebola (Davtyan et al. 2014). Further, I found that in public discourse surrounding the question of Ebola, race acts as a key floating signifier referring to risky persons, risky traits, and the idea of risk.

For example, travel bans applying to affected countries, including Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, were widely called for by public figures and in social media. These calls and related discourse were racially-inflected. United States President Barack Obama was accused of having special ties to West Africa which prevented him from seeing the need for a travel ban (e.g. Media Matters 2014). Analysis via Google Trends reveals that there was a correlation between the search for the term “immigration” and the search for the term “Ebola”, both of which spiked in the late months of 2014. Other racially-inflected cases were reported in October of 2014, including the image of a chimp on the cover of Newsweek to link bush meat and Ebola (Culp-Ressler 2014). Indeed, the CDC fact sheet on Ebola still lists bush meat as a possible vector of Ebola transmission, despite a significant lack of evidence. Further, a community college in Texas refused to accept students from Nigeria and Liberia, and links were suggested between Ebola infection and the porousness of the Mexican border (Culp-Ressler 2014).

President Obama rejected outright travel bans, but did set into place special screening procedures at airports for those traveling from affected countries into the US. Some calls for travel bans and screening procedures may not be remarkable, given that viral infection is genuinely communicable. Yet, panic over the threat of Ebola (partially expressed as panic over the presence, or potential presence, of West Africans persons and those resembling West Africans) vastly outstripped its potential impacts, especially when compared to far more widespread and also deadly viruses such as seasonal influenza. Yet, according to the Center for Disease Control, the Ebola outbreak’s impact in the United States was limited to only two imported and two locally-acquired cases. Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that 5-20% of the US population are impacted by the seasonal flu each year and there are roughly 200,000 resulting hospitalizations. In other words, travel bans were not necessary and were only called for as a result of race-related panic. In the public imagination, the United States was unsullied by mortal threat and might be contaminated if we allowed the wrong persons into our borders. There was some panic, too, over the transmission of Ebola via the sperm of affected men – and that means that women were cautioned against sex with these “black” men—a second kind of boundary-setting.

And what emerged as a recommendation for dealing with Ebola in West Africa? According to the Pew Research Center (, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the most followed news story since 2010. In October of 2014, Pew reported that 77% of adults in the US favored sending troops to West Africa to combat the spread of the virus in the region. (Compare this approval statistic with 53% approval in September of the same year of President Obama’s plan to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.)

What we see here are bids for control over the circulation of and interaction over particular populations, that is, West African persons and women, on the back of a rhetorical strategy I will refer to as the fallacy of catastrophe: if one poses potential disaster as a backdrop, there is room to make troubling proposals while simultaneously disguising or eliding the ethical import of those proposals.

In the case of Ebola, proposals are placed, I argue, against the backdrop of feared social, political, and sexual interracial interaction.