Alphonso Toweh was riding a bus when a man sitting next to him politely asked where he was from.
“Liberia,” said Toweh, a writer from Monrovia who is visiting the Washington area, home to the nation’s second-largest population of African immigrants.
“At that point, the man went far from me,” he said. “He did not want to come close to me. People, once they know you are Liberian — people assume you have the virus in your body, which is not the case.”
Irrational fears about the deadly Ebola virus are running rampant across the country and the Washington region even as health officials try to quell them with assurances that the virus is transmitted only by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is symptomatic. The fears have been fueled by the death of a Liberian man with Ebola at a Dallas hospital last week and the news that two nurses who cared for him now have the virus. One of those nurses flew from Cleveland to Dallas with a 99.5-degree fever before being diagnosed, potentially exposing the other 132 passengers to the virus.
Soaring public anxiety over Ebola has taken a toll on immigrants from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where an epidemic has killed almost 4,500 people. More than 161,000 African immigrants live in the Washington region, including almost 10,000 from Sierra Leone and 6,000 from Liberia, the Census Bureau reported this month.
West Africans here say they have been ostracized because of the fear generated by the illness. Some people refuse to shake their hands. A cough brings unwanted attention. Some have been asked to leave work and go home “to sit for a while,” Toweh said.
Saymendy Lloyd, a friend of Louise Troh’s, the fiancee of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola in Dallas, said that when she returned to Washington last week, she was met with a cold distance. Even though Lloyd had no interactions with Duncan’s family in Dallas, people stayed away, she said.
“When I got off the plane, I visited a senior citizen I adopted,” said Lloyd, who grew up in Liberia and is executive director of the Women’s Wing Organization, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. “When I went there and people saw I was coming from Texas, they went to the management. They didn’t want me in the building. I stood by the door.”
She added, “People are calling and saying, ‘I love you, but I’m not going to be around you for 21 days’ — friends, family, acquaintances — because they saw me on the news and knew our organization was working to try to help Louise.”
The Rev. Oliver Lloyd, pastor of Whosoever Will Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., described several recent uncomfortable situations that he believes sprang from fear of Ebola.
One was a ceremony at his church in which some nonLiberian visitors declined to stay and eat at the reception. Another was a visit he made to a hospital with his wife, who needed treatment for a chronic ailment. In the lobby, she was asked to put on a mask to protect her from others who might be sick, but as a result, he said, “folks gradually started getting up and moving away from her.”
One Liberian friend who works in another state called to say that his manager had asked him if he would like to take time off work. “It wasn’t direct, but they wanted to find a legal way to take precautions,” Lloyd said.
To counter public suspicions, church leaders and others have been putting out the message that everyone should wash their hands and avoid shaking hands and hugging. Instead of hiding their origins, he said, people should let others know that they are from Liberia — especially if they have arrived recently — but that they are not sick.
“We want everyone to take responsibility and help prevent the spread of Ebola,” Lloyd said. He and other community leaders are especially concerned that some visitors or immigrants from Liberia who become sick but are not here legally might delay going to a hospital for fear of being reported to immigration officials.
“If people are scared, they might wait until they have a high fever before they go to a hospital, and that could infect a lot more people,” he said. “We need to find a way to let folks know if they go for treatment they will not be deported.”
Some West Africans say they are being shunned because of their accent. Toweh said he has tried to hide his in public.
“If I’m on the Metro, I don’t talk,” he said. “If I’m on the bus, I don’t talk. If people hear the accent, they think you are Liberian, then you have Ebola, which is not the case. Not all Liberians have Ebola.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the largest Ebola outbreak in history is raging in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to World Health Organization numbers, there have been 8,997 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of the virus and 4,493 deaths.
After the death of one person from Ebola in the United States, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are concerned about an Ebola epidemic in this country.
Bockari Kortu Stevens, ambassador to the United States from Sierra Leone, said he has seen two reactions in Washington to the outbreak.
“We have seen people who want to go and help with the problem we are having in Sierra Leone,” he said. But the stigma of being from his country is growing, too. “The moment you say, ‘I am from Sierra Leone,’ people around you will start to look the other way.”
Stevens said he recently heard about a man from Sierra Leone living in the Washington area who was being ostracized by his roommates.
“The man wanted to go to his apartment, and his own friends locked him out,” Stevens said. “There is so much misinformation about Ebola.”
Stevens said the fear is not just among Americans, but from Africans as well. “Even within our community, when someone comes from Sierra Leone on holiday and came back, even in the business community, there is stigma,” he said.
Stevens said he has met with officials from Guinea and Liberia to try to organize a public response to calm fears.
Topher Hamblett, president of the Foundation for West Africa, which supports radio stations in Sierra Leone and Liberia, said many West Africans in Washington are deeply worried about their loved ones back home.
“It’s not like anyone from the place can just jump on an airplane and go solve the problem,” said Hamblett, who served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in an area near the border with Guinea and Liberia. “It has the unhappy distinction of being where the civil war started and ended, but also where the Ebola outbreak hit hard.”
Pinky Kenkpen, 37, a nursing lecturer at Cuttington University in Bong County, Liberia, is visiting Indiana, where she is getting married. When she arrived in the United States on Sept. 21, she was surprised that no one seemed alarmed by her home country.
“I went through the airport like any other passenger, and I was happy,” she said.
That changed after Duncan was hospitalized with Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where he died last week.
“When Eric Duncan came, there was great awareness,” Kenkpen said. “Almost everybody knew about what Ebola is, and people started to become afraid.”
Now people are aware of the numbers associated with the virus — its death rate, the number of victims and how contagious it is.
“Everyone knows the incubation period is 21 days,” Kenkpen said. “After they know you have been here, and it’s after the incubation period, they come close to you.”