Ebola outbreak in Africa spreads fake news in America


An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in two African nations is reviving false claims among right-wing conspiracists that the virus is present in the United States, highlighting the emerging threat that rumors spread through social media play in combating real diseases.

The outbreak has infected 2,078 people in two provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and at least three more people in neighboring Uganda, according to the Congolese Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO). Of those, 1,390 have died.

{mosads}Health officials have struggled to mount an effective response in North Kivu and Ituri provinces in Congo, where decades of ethnic strife have created a deep and lasting mistrust of outsiders and even the federal government in far-off Kinshasa. Local residents have resisted both Congolese and international health workers, in part, those overseeing the response say, because of rumors suggesting nefarious intent.

“Rumors can be more devastating than the disease. And every time you have an epidemic of disease, you have an epidemic of rumors as well,” said Sylvie Briand, the director of infectious hazard management at the WHO’s Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department. She calls the challenge of false rumors an “infodemic.”

In the past two weeks, rumors that the disease has been brought to the United States have spread to right-wing conspiracy sites. Twitter posts and stories on websites such as Gateway Pundit and Breitbart have claimed several cases of the Ebola virus have been confirmed in Laredo, Texas, brought in by a surge of migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Texas officials have pushed back against those false rumors. In a Twitter post Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) shared a comment from Laredo officials who say the virus is not present. 

“There are no suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola in Texas right now. No one in Texas is currently being monitored for Ebola,” Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in an email to The Hill. A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed Anton’s statement.

Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, quoted a Reuters story about the outbreak on her show on Monday to argue that there is a danger of people with Ebola being allowed into the United States under asylum laws.

“Hundreds of illegals from the Congo apparently are applying for asylum and being deposited in San Antonio. Now this could clearly be a public health concern, why? Well according to Reuters, the number of cases of Ebola in eastern Congo has passed 2,000, government figures showed,” Ingraham said.

Ingraham dismissed remarks from San Antonio officials who said someone with Ebola was unlikely to enter the United States since it takes a maximum of 21 days to show symptoms. Most migrants from African countries who enter the United States have been traveling for six or seven months, the officials said.

“I don’t know, why would we even put that to chance? I’m not sure we’re really tracking the travel patterns of everybody coming into the country. But they’re telling us don’t worry tonight, it’s OK,” Ingraham said.

In recent days, San Antonio officials did ask for French-speaking volunteers to help translate for Congolese families. The Border Patrol has said about 500 migrants from the entire continent of Africa have crossed the Del Rio sector of the U.S. border with Mexico in the past two weeks, accounting for less than 2 percent of the total crossings.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a population of about 86 million, accounting for about 7 percent of the 1.2 billion people who live in Africa.

The spread of false news through the right-wing Twitter-sphere mirrors similar rumors that took place during the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, an epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people in three West African countries in 2014 and 2015. In the midst of that outbreak, President Trump, then a private citizen, tweeted that Americans volunteering to fight the disease should be left in Africa rather than repatriated to the United States. 

In an after-action analysis, the Obama administration concluded that Trump’s tweets about Ebola drove the mass hysteria that enveloped the nation in August 2014. The American health workers who were brought back to the United States by private medical air charter survived.

Public health officials who have been battling the virus in Congo say the rumors and fearmongering have become a regular occurrence any time a new disease breaks out.

“Misinformation and rumors and this fear of the disease, that’s common in every outbreak. That’s not specific to Congo or even to Ebola,” said Carlos Navarro, UNICEF’s principal adviser for public health emergencies. “A lot of the misinformation and the rumors and panic is spread through social media.”

Briand, the WHO expert, said misinformation and mass panic spread during earlier outbreaks had cost billions of dollars in economic damage even when viruses were contained. An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea in 2015 cost that country’s economy $8.5 billion in lost economic activity. 

An outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 infected 8,096 people and killed 774 — and cost the global economy $40 billion in lost activity as airlines canceled flights and goods stopped flowing through borders.

“The world currently is so interconnected and so interdependent that any event that has an impact will create a huge disruption. And this is something that will be very difficult to control,” Briand said. “The infodemic can be more devastating than the epidemics.”

The rumors can make the work of fighting a virus all the more difficult; in both the Ebola outbreak in West Africa five years ago and the current outbreak, some communities have come to believe that the federal government or outside health workers have brought the virus with them as a way to commit ethnic cleansing or genocide.

“Anything that comes from the outside is really not welcome. That combination of a population that’s traumatized by 30 years of conflict, the conflict itself and the mistrust makes everything more difficult,” Navarro said.

UNICEF tracks the spread of rumors in an outbreak zone with as much diligence as the Health Ministry and WHO track the number of infected cases. The agency prepares a weekly summary of messages with false information spreading on social media apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp in an attempt to confront and counter those rumors.

“We usually face two outbreaks at the same time, the virus and the misinformation,” Navarro said. “The epidemics of fear, the epidemics of panic, that’s what we have.”

Tags Africa Congo Donald Trump Ebola Ed Case Fake News Laura Ingraham Uganda

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