Trumping Fears of the Other: Media and the Politics of Contagion

We live in fearful times. Many people seem to be afraid of almost everything--sharks, contaminated foods, polluted water, heat waves, droughts, floods, tsunamis, rising ocean levels, financial collapse, the police, radical Muslims, young African American men. These fears are reinforced exponentially in our media, including, of course, social media. There are viral videos of shark feeding frenzies very close to our beaches as well as footage of actual shark attacks captured on cell phone clips. There are videos that highlight how fracking contaminates a water supply that is rapidly dwindling. There is much on-air and on-line discussion of the possibility of economic Armageddon--something's got to give. To make matters even worse, many politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, among many others, stoke those fears for political advantage

We are also fearful of the other. How many white people can say that they feel no fear when they encounter a group of young African American men on the street? How many Africans-Americans, by contrast, can say that they have no fear of an encounter with a white police officer? How many of us can say that we are at ease among young Muslim men attending Friday services at a mosque. These fears of the other, in turn, are exponentially reinforced through media--images of young African American men roaming the streets of Baltimore, video footage of white police beating and/or killing unarmed African-American men, photos of Muslim terrorists--dead and alive--people who want to destroy "our" way of life. We have always been fearful of the other--someone who is not like "us," but today media images expand and deepen these public fears. Are we at the point of cultural collapse?

Perhaps our deepest fears are those associated with illness, contagion, and death. No one embraces illness, especially chronic conditions that have no cure. And yet when we confront someone whose disease sets them apart--the hairless, skeletal body of cancer patient, someone with the visible lesions of an autoimmune disorder, someone with the uncontrollable ticks that accompany neurological conditions like Parkinson's or Huntington's Disease, the Alzheimer's patient listless stare--do we not flinch or keep our distance? If we get too close to someone like that, might we not be next one to develop the condition?

How do we confront these broadly based fears of the other, of contagion and of death? Surely, we can develop technological solutions to our social and epidemiological problems. Bill Gates seems to think so. Given the "progress" he has engineered, it's not surprising that Gates thinks that many of our social problems, including the ubiquity of disease, can be solved through technological advances in science, medicine and technology--hardly a revolutionary idea in 21st century America. Every year The Gates Foundation invests millions of dollars to help people who suffer from chronic medical problems associated with malnutrition, malaria, and tuberculosis. Gates is one of a long line of Euro-American thinkers and entrepreneurs who adhere to one of Euro-American culture's master narratives: namely, that science can enable us to control, if not conquer nature.

But can technology conquer our fundamental fears? In his May 27th VOX article Ezra Klein discussed with Bill Gates our preparedness for pandemic disease. Gates admitted that we are not yet ready for something like The Spanish Flu. Given the frequency of contemporary travel, the death toll for a future pandemic would far outstrip the millions of deaths attributed to The Spanish Flu. In his article Klein wrote:

No one can say we weren't warned. And warned. And warned. A pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in the history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before.

In a 1990 paper on "The Anthropology of Infectious Disease," Marcia Inhorn and Peter Brown estimated that infectious diseases "have likely claimed more lives than all wars, noninfectious diseases, and natural disasters put together." Infectious diseases are our oldest, deadliest foe.

And they remain so today. "In a good year, flu kills over 10,000 Americans," says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "In a bad year, it kills over five times that. If we have a pandemic, it will be much worse. People think the H1N1 flu wasn't so bad. But more than 1,000 American kids died from H1N1!"

Each new year seems to bring its own sensational candidate for the next pandemic. In 2014, of course, it was the Ebola outbreak -- which killed more than 10,000 people, and sent much of America into hysterics. This year, a particularly infectious form of bird flu has ripped through 14 states, killing or forcing the slaughter of 39 million birds. Public health authorities are forcing the grisly massacre because the more birds around for the flu to infect, the more chances the flu has to mutate and reassemble itself into a form that can infect humans.

It isn't just the news that carries warnings. The culture is thick with our fear of infectious disease. Zombies, for instance, are everywhere -- World War Z was a best-selling book and a blockbuster movie; The Walking Dead has become one of television's most popular shows. And zombies are a metaphor for infectious disease.

Fear of infectious disease is not simply an epidemiological phenomenon; it is profoundly cultural, which means that it has also morphed into a political issue. In our media saturated world, fear of infectious disease becomes fused with fear of the other. Contagion is one of the bad things that "others"--immigrants legal and undocumented--bring to a nation state be it in Europe or North America. Donald Trump recklessly stoked our fear of the other by claiming that they, all Mexicans, for example, contaminate society with their crimes (theft, rape and murder) and their exotic diseases. If you get too close to a zombie, you too will become infected. Sadly, this kind of xenophobia resonates well in contemporary society.

Any kind of xenophobia that fuses fear of the other with fear of contagion is socially destructive. It is fodder for the demagoguery of political figures like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, who, during the Ebola crisis, wanted to shut down all air traffic between the US and West Africa, a political position rooted in cultural and social ignorance.

To combat this disruptive political and social ignorance prompted by fear of the other, a group of physicians, anthropologists, public health workers, and historians recently met at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. After four days of deliberative exchange, the Bellagio Task force on Epidemics and Xenophobia drafted a statement that underscored the need for new thinking and action.

We maintain that the current reticence of governments and citizens to acknowledge the tragic human rights needs of stateless peoples has been fueled historically not only by ethnocentrism, but by the improper attribution of blame for infection and contagion--social and biological--to outsiders and foreigners. Indeed, the connection between disease and xenophobia is deeply entrenched, making an underprivileged foreign location or population ground zero for every illness outbreak and related social ill.

The damaging connection of foreigners with danger and disease relies too easily on inappropriate biological or social models that promote fear of the foreign. New images of border patrols wearing hygienic masks make clear that countries continue in the belief that the poor and desperate are carriers of cultural and biological infection, and that such peoples are profoundly threatening to citizens and national homelands.

Today the danger of equating others with the sources of contagion and disease is exacerbated not only by unexpected changes to natural and human environments, but also by the unprecedented movement of people on a global scale. It is also exacerbated by profoundly undemocratic financial practices that limit the assistance governments can provide to those in need. The loss of state revenues caused by a global shift to offshore control of financial resources has given way to a commensurate lack of local and regional investment, and to the unwillingness of governments to support much needed forms of assistance.

Given the track record of the 2016 Republican candidates, Thursday's much anticipated GOP presidential debate is likely to produce red meat rhetoric that inflames our fear of the "contagious" other. A politics that "trumps" our fear of contagion will inevitably lead to widespread political disruption and social chaos. Would it not be better to use social media to broadcast a reasoned message of inclusion and compassion? Our future depends upon it.

To learn more about or support the efforts of The Bellagio Task Force on Epidemics and Xenophobia click on the link: https://www.change.org/p/united-nations-general-assembly-epidemics-and-xenophobia?just_created=true.