By JARED THOMPSON – STAFF WRITER
On Oct. 9, a decision was made to cancel the CentreTerm study abroad trip being led by Associate Professors of Education Sarah Murray and J.H. Atkins to Ghana.
The reasons provided to explain the cancellation were primarily concerns from students, parents, and administrators over safety in the wake of the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. While certainly the deaths of thousands of Africans and aid workers isn’t something to be taken likely, it is in these times of crises that we must be most critical of our viewpoints, our preconceived notions, and out underlying motivations.
Why was this study abroad trip canceled?
What does this case tell us about the way we as a society see Africa?
What can we do to change this?
To begin, it is worth examining the decisions made by our administrators and faculty. According to Director of International Programs Dr. Milton Reigelman the decision to cancel the trip was made “when there were the most dramatic headlines about the one case in [the United States].”
Atkins confirmed that this media coverage, and more specifically the death of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas, “got things going” with regard to parental concern. With heightened pressure from parents, joint talks between Dr. Reigelman, Professors Murray and Atkins, Vice President for Academic Affairs Stephanie Fabritius, and President John Roush began to discuss the status and future of the trip.
These talks combined with, as Dr. Reigelman would put it, “media and political overkill,” ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the Ghana trip. Again, Dr. Reigelman contends that college “erred on the side of safety” in order to “protect the long-term interests of Centre.” The College, in my opinion, made a fairly reasonable decision when it was faced with an extreme level of opposition.
When parents are leaning on administrators to cancel a trip to the degree that they were, a simple case of the flu in Ghana would have resulted in massive outrage. This could have jeopardized Centre’s legitimacy when planning future study abroad trips and cause a public relations fiasco, to say the least.
To Centre’s credit, an alternative trip was organized to Merida, Mexico, allowing students to get some similar hands-on teaching experience which they would have gotten in Ghana. However, this isn’t to suggest that the college is blameless or free from critique concerning their decisions.
Centre, in the name of saving face, canceled a study abroad trip to a country with fewer diagnosed cases of the Ebola virus than the United States of America.
The College, in deciding to cancel the trip, risks confirming societal Ebola virus hysteria and validating widely-held stereotypes about the most impoverished areas of West Africa. In addition, one must call into question Centre’s consistency in canceling the trip. Other trips are taking place to locations that are arguably just as dangerous, such as Israel, which was a warzone as recently as Aug. 26 and is still experiencing fatal violence as recently as Oct. 22. Surely active deaths should be as much as cause for concern as a regional Ebola threat.
In addition, travel to Spain, a country that has not been declared Ebola free by the World Health Organization, is being allowed during CentreTerm trips and this fall by students in our European semester-long programs.
We have to acknowledge that there is risk to international travel regardless of the locale, but a consistent logic must be applied to equally protect all of our students from real danger—not the imagined menace of Ebola.
This isn’t to say that we have to cancel the aforementioned travels but that we must consistently base our decisions on a pragmatic evaluation of the risks present in each scenario and not allow ourselves to fall victim to sensationalism.
Centre, however, had to contend with this hysteria regardless of its rationality. Instead, Centre students should be asking why these administrators were unfairly put in the position of canceling the Ghana trip in the first place. We must ask why our parents, why pundits, and why our society is in a state that can be described as nothing less than a frenzy over the Ebola virus.
Our society created an environment in which we are willing to cancel a trip to an African nation with a widely implemented universal healthcare system—one that Bill Gates called the most successful on the continent. This should be alarming because of what is suggested about our underlying attitudes concerning Africa and the specific stereotypes that our society holds up as gospel.
A member of Centre’s faculty, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned whether or not it was incorrect to claim that coverage of the outbreak “shows just how deeply the legacies of racism and colonialism continue to drive paranoia and xenophobia in the United States and Europe.”
Robin Wright, fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center agrees with this professor, writing for CNN that the Ebola virus “is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the ‘Dark Continent’.”
We know almost nothing of the thousands who have perished in West Africa, and artist André Carrilho argued that “people in the African continent are more regarded as an abstract statistic than a patient in the U.S. or Europe.”
These viewpoints only echo the sentiments of our own Associate Professor of International Studies Dr. Lori Hartmann-Mahmud, who wrote “how sad that in our panicked quest to protect ourselves, we lose sight of the humanity of the victims.”
Google Trends and other social media metrics confirm unconscious prejudice by noting massive spikes of activity only in response to cases on United States soil. These societal attitudes only strengthen the argument that our public discourse is driven by decidedly Amerocentric viewpoints.
Any semblance of a healthcare infrastructure in Liberia and Sierra Leone can be destroyed by civil war and America can exacerbate the conflict by consuming conflict diamonds, but when a virus of African origin is present on American soil, only then do the affairs of West Africa become objects worthy of the attention of public consciousness.
We as a society must take a step back and realize the vastly distorted notions and conceptions of Africa that are driving public discourse, ones that culminated in Navarro College in Texas issuing rejection letters to students from Nigeria, citing Ebola as the reason for rejection. The hysteria has become so pervasive that it has permeated our institutions of higher education—places that are supposed to endow us with the skills to think critically and swim against the currents of public opinion to demand facts and a rational explanations.
The Ghana trip’s cancellation is nothing less than an example of the hijacking of our learning environment by a horribly misinformed and increasingly xenophobic populace. This cancellation, however, is just one chapter in a much larger story of the stereotyping of the African continent. It now falls to individuals themselves to ward off this creeping xenophobia and to not only better educate themselves, but to better educate the people around them.
In the end the equation is simple: public opinion drives public policy, and public policy in the case of Ebola determines just how much more horrendous we let this epidemic become.