African Immigrants Speak Out Against Ebola Stigmatization

San Francisco resident Dr. Thomas Muyunga is from Uganda — a country with no reported Ebola cases — but said that didn’t matter to his employers who pressured him to leave his job because they were afraid he would pass the deadly virus onto them.

Muyunga joined a cohort of African advocacy agencies in San Francisco today to call for an end to the harassment and stigma Muyunga and other African immigrants say they face as a result of the Ebola outbreak this year.

The news conference in front of City Hall this morning was sponsored by the African Advocacy Network, Dolores Street Community Services, Priority Africa Network, the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network and the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action.

Muyunga fled Uganda and sought political asylum in the U.S. after he was detained, tortured and interrogated for speaking out against laws that he said discriminate against homosexuals and people with HIV/AIDS.

“I was speaking out against those laws,” Muyunga said. “I made so much noise, someone called the police. I was tortured by the police to give names of the people I knew and I refused.”

He had been caring for two clients as a home nurse in San Francisco for about one month before news broke in October that Thomas Duncan, who had recently returned from Liberia, had become the first person in the U.S. to die from Ebola in the most recent outbreak this year.

“One of the people I care for told me point blank that he no longer wanted me to touch him,” Muyunga said. “He told that because I’m African, I might give him Ebola.”

Muyunga said his client threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave his house. Muyunga complied, particularly, he said, because he has had very negative experiences with the police in Uganda.

Dr. Tomás Aragón of the San Francisco Department of Public Health said stigmatization of a population after the outbreak of a deadly disease has historically been a problem in the U.S. and San Francisco in particular.

Aragón said Chinese neighborhoods were quarantined in the 1910s amid fears of the bubonic plague, Haitians were discriminated against when HIV reached epidemic levels and Chinese immigrants were again stigmatized when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in 2003.

“Historically, this happens. People will associate people from a region as having the disease,” Aragón said, adding that those fears are unfounded.

“The Health Department is monitoring everyone very carefully who is coming from those regions,” Aragón said. “For the average person walking down the street, they should not fear getting exposed to Ebola.”

Aragón said the incubation period for the virus is anywhere from 2 to 21 days, but after 21 days, “there is nothing to worry about.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 17,145 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of the Ebola virus disease in six countries, including Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain and the U.S. since the outbreak was first announced in March.

There have been 6,070 confirmed deaths as of Nov. 30, according to the CDC.

Nunu Kidane, director of the Priority Africa Network, an Oakland-based social justice community organization, said many African immigrants are fearful to come forward and speak out against the discrimination they face.

Oftentimes, the prejudice is subtle, Kidane said.

“(Our members) have definitely noticed a change when they introduce themselves and say they are from West Africa or Africa,” Kidane said. “Our hair braiders have noticed a huge drop in clientele. None of these are legal grounds to retaliate, but we believe it’s important to be heard and seen.”

Kidane said the interactions appear to be rooted in fear and apprehension. She said it was important to come out publicly and face the prejudice and discrimination “head on.”

“Even if people are afraid to speak out, we want them to know that we are willing to speak out,” Kidane said.

Erin Baldassari, Bay City News

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!