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Liberians Wonder If Duncan's Death Was A Result Of Racism

Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S., at a wedding in Ghana. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Duncan was being treated for the disease, on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014 said Duncan has died.
Wilmot Chayee
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S., at a wedding in Ghana. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Duncan was being treated for the disease, on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014 said Duncan has died.

Moffie Kanneh is angry at the United States. When I meet the Liberian lawyer, he asks immediately where I am from. "Take this back to Washington," he says. "I am extremely furious."

In the days after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan — the Liberian man diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas last month — Kanneh was one of many Liberians who told me that case changed the way they see the United States. Many noted how different Duncan's experience in the U.S. healthcare system seemed from white patients who contracted Ebola, like Dr. Kent Brantly, who recovered from the disease last month, NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, who is making progress in his treatment there, and most recently two nurses who treated Duncan, both of whom are doing well.

Sitting outside a small café in Monrovia, Kanneh explains that he feels U.S. attitudes toward Liberians are tinged with both racism and xenophobia. "The combination of African, black..." he shakes his head. "I still think if Eric was an American they would have given him preferential treatment."

Some people also see Duncan's case as evidence that the U.S. doesn't want West Africans to seek treatment in the United States. "It was a racist approach in a larger sense," explains Franklin Wesseh, who describes himself to me as an opposition party member and writer. He's referring to the slow response by the Dallas hospital that initially sent Duncan home despite a fever and weakness.

"I personally think [Duncan] could have been saved," he says, sipping coffee after church on a Sunday afternoon. "He was given less attention. It was a way of probably discouraging Liberians who contracted the disease and want to go there."

But while many Liberians I spoke to are frustrated by what they see as anti-African prejudice, some within the government urge less focus on race and more on fighting the epidemic.

"When we play the race card there will be problems," says Nathaniel Toe, the superintendent for Maryland County, Liberia. His county, in the southeastern part of the country, doesn't have an Ebola treatment center yet, and Toe is concerned that the U.S. could react to charges of racism by slowing down delivery of aid. One of the 18 U.S.-built treatment centers is planned for Maryland county.

"We are being distracted," he says. The real issue, he thinks, is not racism or American attitudes toward Liberia. It is access to healthcare. "I would like to see the intervention reach all of Liberia, [with] the same quality of service as in Atlanta, in Dallas."

"Take that to Washington," he says. "We need better hospitals."

Another government official I meet, Mitchell Jones of the Liberian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, echoes Toe's sentiments. "This is not a time for politics," he says.

Jones speaks poetically about unity and democracy. "We Liberians must be as one people," he tells me. As he talks, he slides away from me on the bench we share.

"I'm sorry," he says. "Now we are all afraid of touching, of the brushing of skin even."

He equates the Ebola epidemic in Liberia to the 9/11 attacks in the US. "This is the time that we all hold together. Like when Bin Laden attacked the United States, it was a time for every American to hold together to fight their common enemy. Liberians today, our common enemy is Ebola."

Despite such calls for unity, the Liberians I met were frustrated and angry at the U.S. And those emotions are coloring the way they view U.S. aid. Even after Thomas Eric Duncan's story fades from the headlines, Wesseh says he will think of it when the U.S. says it is committed to helping Liberia through the crisis.

That a Liberian citizen died of Ebola when American citizens have survived makes him feel that America may not be truly committed to helping the Liberian people.

"America protects its interests," he says. "Yes they are here today, making sure Ebola can be kicked out of Liberia, but only for their [business] transactions. I personally am disappointed."

Back in the U.S. this week, Duncan's nephew echoed some of the comments I heard in Monrovia. In an essay written for the Dallas Morning News, Josephus Weeks stated that his uncle did not have to die and that his treatment had been substandard.

Weeks brought up the issue of race in his opening paragraph: "He told the nurse he had recently been in Liberia. But he was a man of color with no health insurance and no means to pay for treatment, so within hours he was released with some antibiotics and Tylenol."

He went on to say that "Thomas Eric Duncan was a victim of a broken system. Some speculate that this was a failure of the internal communications systems. Others have speculated that antibiotics and Tylenol are the standard protocol for a patient without insurance. ... Their error set the wheels in motion for my uncle's death and additional Ebola cases, and their ignorance, incompetence or indecency has created a national security threat for our country."

Weeks captures what everyone I spoke to in Monrovia agreed with: that Duncan had not been treated with dignity and that his death was a tragedy.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.