When a black woman from Africa collapsed at a business meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, German police dispatched more than 60 police officers and firefighters to lock down the building, isolating some 600 people who worked there. The woman, who lives in Berlin and who was rumored to have just returned from Africa a week earlier, along with two others who had come to her aid when she collapsed, were rushed to an isolation ward at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. No one was allowed in or out of the building as armed police stood guard.
Given the rampant spread of the lethal Ebola virus, which has killed more than 1,350 people so far, according to the World Health Organization, the reaction may seem prudent. But the woman, as it turns out, just had a stomach virus. She had returned from Kenya, but she had not been to any of the West African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak. Being African was apparently enough to spark the frenzy.
Similar incidents have been reported across Europe. In Brussels, an African man with a nosebleed was reportedly whisked out of a shopping mall in late July, and the store he was in sterilized before he tested negative for the virus. In the United Kingdom, the body of a woman from the Gambia who died after falling ill following a flight from the Gambia to London was sequestered until it could be tested for Ebola, even though she had no symptoms or known contact with anyone with the virus. In Italy, some schools have sent out warnings that any students of African origin would be required to have additional health certificates prior to starting school, though no requests were made of white children who may have been to Africa on summer vacations.
Despite the pan-European panic, only one person is known to have died in Europe from Ebola. Father Miguel Pajares, a 75-year-old Roman Catholic priest who had been ministering to the dying in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, was evacuated under quarantine to Madrid on August 7. He died August 12, despite being given a dose of the experimental drug ZMapp, which was also administered to two American missionaries, both of whom are recovering. Still, there is continuing concern. On Tuesday, two men who had just traveled home to Nigeria and were suspected of carrying Ebola were identified and isolated in Voecklabruck, Austria. They were released from quarantine after testing negative for the deadly virus.
As fears of the virus hitting Europe intensify, health officials warn that paranoia and racial profiling may grow, as well. “We need to be prudent without being paranoid,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, said this month after an Internet hoaxster spread rumors that there were three cases of Ebola on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where many refugees and irregular migrants arrive from North Africa. “It is not fair to assume all black people are potential Ebola carriers. That is blatant racism.”
Precisely because the Ebola virus is so deadly and so isolated, it would be easy to forgive the public’s paranoia. The panic is exacerbated when those still working presumably safely in the affected areas are worried, too. When Air France flight attendant and head of the airline’s union Patrick Henry-Haye wrote a petition to his employers this week begging them to stop all airline travel to West African countries affected by the Ebola virus outbreak, he set off a new frenzy among air travelers. After all, if a flight attendant is scared, who’s going to calm the passengers? More than 700 Air France crew members, including pilots, have signed the petition. “They say we are trained to spot Ebola,” he told Le Figaro. “That’s false. We’re not trained to do anything other than put on rubber gloves and surgical masks and lock suspected patients in the lavatories. That’s not enough.”
Air France is the last remaining major European airline still flying directly to the Ebola-affected West African cities of Conakry, Guinea, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, causing ample concern that the greatest chance for the epidemic to reach Europe would likely be through its hub in Paris, where the flights land. (American carrier Delta is suspending flights to Monrovia on August 31.)
Adding to the nervousness are mixed messages from those who are supposed to be in the know. Despite the growing crisis, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan has not yet banned travel or trade in the affected areas, even though she cautioned recently that that “every city with an international airport is at risk” because many people from the affected areas board connecting flights. Because the virus is not airborne and is transmitted only by bodily fluids, the WHO has said air travel to or from the affected areas is safe, even though it has called the epidemic an “extraordinary event” and an “international public health emergency.”
Until and unless the WHO makes Ebola a global threat, international airport security authorities are not required—and because of privacy concerns in some countries not allowed—to ask passengers if they have been to the affected regions before boarding flights to or from anywhere in the world, which only feeds the paranoia that the deadly virus could soon cross borders and fuels the suspicion about just who might be carrying it.