Jesse Jackson on Ebola and Civil Liberties
Reverend Jesse Jackson paid a visit to the UC Irvine School of Law last Wednesday evening, participating in a conversation about the recent Ebola outbreak and its implications on civil liberties.
Moderated by Michele Goodwin, a Chancellor’s Professor of Law and director for the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, the panel brought Jackson in conversation with Edwin Chemerinsky, dean of UCI Law.
“This is our enemy, not the people who are infected with it,” said Dr. Andrew Noymer, a public health professor, who discussed the stigmatization of Ebola and how it exacerbates pre-existing discrimination.
The Ebola virus disease, caused by an ebolavirus, is transmitted through contact with the body fluids of an animal or person who has been infected. Noymer made it a point to clarify that although the Ebola virus disease is highly infectious, in that it requires very small amount of the virus to become sick, it is not very contagious because of its inability to be transferred by any other mechanism besides direct contact with a bodily fluid.
Noymer explained that because of this, self-monitoring, rather than the quarantine measures that have been imposed by various levels of government, is required for medical workers returning from West Africa and those who are suspected of having contracted the virus. This is due to the fact that, among humans, Ebola can only be transferred while an infected person is facing symptoms. During the prodromal stage, although the virus is incubated, Ebola cannot be transferred.
“There’s a fear of infection that people have and therefore fear of infected people,” Noymer said. According to Noymer, this fear, when mapped onto pre-existing prejudices and bigotry, manifests in skewed conceptions of entire populations of people, in this case African people at large. To illustrate this point, he presented a map clarifying that only Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as the three West African countries primarily affected by the Ebola outbreak, with the rest of Africa unaffected.
Dr. George W. Woods Jr, the president-elect of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, echoed Noymer’s sentiments, explaining that the often irrational reactions that Ebola has generated is one based on delusion.
“Delusions are really designed to create a wall around the anxiety of irrationality,” Woods said.
One of these delusions, according to Chemerinsky, is the quarantining of individuals who don’t yet present a clear and immediate threat to public health.
“Quarantining a person is taking away that person’s civil liberties. Quarantining a person may result in the person being in prison, certainly results in restriction of freedom of movement,” Chemerinsky said.
Chemerinsky emphasized the irrationality of quarantine measures, which can be considered a breach of civil liberties, especially due to the nature of how Ebola is transmitted and the fact that less than 1 percent of the American population is affected by it.
“When politics become involved, we lose sight of the science and the medicine,” said Chemerinsky, referring to Maine governor Paul LePage who quarantined Kaci Hickox, a nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, in order to gain political favor for re-election during election season.
Goodwin also raised the question of race and its relationship to the Ebola crisis.
Jackson answered by explaining the stereotypes that prevented Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital from accepting Thomas Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the US, as a patient.
Thomas was Black, spoke broken English, didn’t have insurance and couldn’t explain where he worked. The hospital gave him cursory treatment and sent him ill back into the world.
Jackson reminded the audience that, in addition to medical considerations, there are also imperative moral considerations to account for when dealing with diseased patients. He cited an instance in the Bible where Jesus spent his last night on earth with a person afflicted with leprosy, curing him rather than treating him as an outcast.