Newsweek’s racist and misinformed Ebola cover story, say some

People voiced strong disagreement with using a monkey for a cover story about Africa, saying it evoked racist connotations.

This week, a drawn chimp features as the sole image on the cover of Newsweek. The article and cover image now face two serious charges from academics, activists and diplomats. They say that the image of a monkey is racist and the article is factually incorrect. The depiction of Africans as ape-like and sub-human dates back centuries to colonialism. A racist justification for treating Africans as inferior, the image is one that rots in the dustbin of history. At least that was the thought until Newsweek’s cover.

The release of the image at the end of last week was met with an immediate backlash. Newsweek’s Editor in Chief Jim Impoco engaged with his critics to the extent that he dismissed their concerns.

He flippantly dismissed the concerns of the cover, made by academics and African experts. The feature article warns that bushmeat smuggled into the US from West Africa could export the outbreak to American shores. The illegal delicacy makes its way into the US and could be a vessel for deadly diseases “such as Monkeybox, Ebola Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and other communicable diseases,” according to a 2007 customs memo obtained by Newsweek.

The cover, coupled with a misinformed article, is extremely damaging, argue researchers Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne in the Washington Post, today. The two carefully looked through the information about the spread of disease through bushmeat, finding that it would be nearly impossible for Ebola to make it to the US through the illicit trade.  The consequences for the way that people view Africa, and especially African migrants living in the US, can be devastating.

“Newsweek’s use of a chimpanzee to represent a scientifically invalid story about an African disease is a classic case of othering. It suggests that African immigrants are to be feared, and that apes — and African immigrants who eat them — could bring a deadly disease to the pristine shores of the United States of America,” write Seay and Dionne.

Polls show that 40% of Americans (a Fox News poll cites 60%) believe an Ebola outbreak is likely in a US city. Since Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids, the odds of an outbreak in the US is extremely unlikely. That fact does not allay concerns for roughly two out of every five Americans.

Those fearful of Ebola coming to the US will have their fears reinforced by the Newsweek. They might come to believe that foreigners are making them less safe by eating bushmeat. The evidence just doesn’t hold up. The article admits, at the end, that the larger issue is with the trade in Africa itself, not importing bushmeat the the US.

In the Bronx and other parts of the city with large enclaves of West African immigrants, Newsweek could not find bushmeat for sale. Targeting small merchants, however, will not stem the illegal bushmeat trade or the potential spread of diseases like Ebola. Instead, the commercial trade in Africa must be curbed, which will require greater action and cooperation from African governments and increased international efforts—a daunting task, considering how popular bushmeat is on the continent.

The virus can be transmitted to humans through slaughtered animals, but the most likely culprit is the fruit bat, not a chimp. Even that happening is extremely rare. Then add the fact that fruit bats are rarely a part of the international trade. All of which means that there is little reason to be fearful of Ebola coming to the US through wild game caught in West Africa.

Also, Newsweek could have easily considered a cover image that looked something like this:

Fruit Bat (Marc/Flickr)

Fruit Bat (Marc/Flickr)

For a more comprehensive look into the problems with the Newsweek cover story and image, read Seay and Dionne’s piece here.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.