Ebola, Fear and a Changing Texas

A pedestrian wears a surgical mask as he crosses the street in front of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.New York Times – by MANNY FERNANDEZ

DALLAS — There is a little Ethiopian cafe here on Park Lane, down the street from where the man city officials call Patient Zero was staying. I walked in and asked the workers standing behind the counter if they knew anything about the patient, Thomas E. Duncan, a Liberian citizen who was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Next to the cash register was a bottle of hand sanitizer.

They did not know him. But they called over a customer. The customer, a middle-aged woman, walked over. I don’t think she heard my question, but she heard one word within it: “Ebola.” With a worried look on her face, she stretched her arm in front of me, pumped the sanitizer a couple times and rubbed it on her hands.  

Covering Ebola in Texas is like this — fleeting moments of fear, often stirred by misinformation.

Perhaps if I was sick and infectious with Ebola and had sneezed on my hand, and then I shook her hand, and then she used that same hand to touch her eye, mouth or nose, then maybe, just maybe, she would have had something to worry about. But I didn’t even shake her hand. Ebola carries a kind of scarlet letter even in the United States, particularly in a working-class community of African immigrants, and no amount of news conferences, posters or statements by health officials reminding people that the disease is not spread through casual contact but through direct contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person can fully shake that perception.

The people at the cafe wanted to make something clear, and it had very little to do with Ebola: This was an Ethiopian cafe, and Mr. Duncan was from Liberia. It was as if the two countries were on different planets. Their comments revealed something about covering this story that has been largely ignored in the news media coverage.

Ebola has opened a window into the melting-pot world of Texas immigrants. Outside the apartment complex where Mr. Duncan was staying, a small mob of reporters and cameramen huddled at the gates and desperately called over a man walking to his car. Did he know Mr. Duncan and the others in the apartment? Was he Liberian?

The answer to both questions was “no.” He was Burmese.

The fact that all of these people and places are in Texas — the Texas of Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas of rodeos and barbecue and concealed-handgun permits — shows how un-Texas Texas can be.

There are an estimated 10,000 Liberians in a four-county region that includes Dallas County. The area has always been dominated by a conservative Christian tenor, yet it has also quietly become home to 200,000 Muslims. Some of those stepping into the Dallas Central Mosque for prayers have been known to do so in cowboy boots. Last year, I drove to the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano to interview Mohamed Elibiary, a member of the North Texas Islamic Council who was born in Egypt and grew up in Dallas. He greeted me at his front door, wearing a Dallas Cowboys football jersey, jeans and black Converse sneakers.

In recent days, a doctored photo has created a buzz on social media and has been posted, forwarded, tweeted and retweeted. It shows Big Tex, the 55-foot mechanical cowboy that towers over the state fairgrounds in Dallas and serves as the city’s Howdy Doody-style mascot. He is wearing one of those light-blue sanitary masks over his nose and mouth.

In the corner it reads, “Welcome to Dallas!”



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