Map created by to show relative distance from the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak to major cities on and off the continent. Shared with permission, all rights reserved.

Today we commemorate Columbus Day, an American holiday observed in some states, perhaps for Christopher Columbus’s perseverance and bravery rather than his geographical knowledge. In light of recent scares involving “potential Ebola cases” and air travel involving individuals who had been nowhere near the Ebola outbreak zone, it seems we all could use a little geography lesson.

As college instructors of African politics, we both work to increase knowledge of African geography. Students usually come to college knowing American geography well, but few have ever been required to memorize a map of Africa.  We require that students memorize the map because, when studying African politics, it essential that our students know where events happened and how they relate to one another. It’s impossible to understand the politics of the liberation movements in Southern Africa from the 1960s to 1980s without understanding where Angola and Mozambique lie in relation to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Students must know that the Democratic Republic of Congo shares a border with Rwanda in order to understand how the 1994 Rwandan genocide could have such a profound impact on the Congolese. Like most other African politics professors, we give map quizzes early in the semester of our introductory courses, requiring students to fill in a blank map of the African continent. One of us (Laura) also requires her students to memorize each African capital city.  We find that students benefit greatly from this intensive exercise in memorizing the map early on; they don’t have to pause when reading to figure out where Ouagadougou is or how trade routes between Mali and Algeria worked in the pre-colonial era. (For those of you who can’t take our classes, The Washington Post has a neat interactive map quiz that will do just fine.)

One thing the map quiz doesn’t always achieve however, is helping students to understand just how large the African continent is. Historical mapping norms, particularly the Mercator Projection, made Africa appear to be about the same size as Greenland. Greenland is actually about 1/14 the size of the African continent, but the misunderstandings perpetrated by old maps — plus cultural and media norms that often refer to Africa as one entity rather than an 11.7 million-square-mile land mass comprised of 54 countries and over 1.1 billion people who speak over 2,000 different languages.

This cultural confusion means that, when a dangerous virus like Ebola breaks out, Americans who are used to referring to “Africa” as one entity may make mistakes in understanding just how big of a threat Ebola actually is, who might have been exposed to it, and what the likelihood of an individual contracting it might be.

One example of a failure to appreciate the size of Africa and the distance between different African countries was the response to a woman vomiting on a flight from New York to Los Angeles Sunday:  a crew of “forty LAFD firefighters and paramedics, along with airport police, LA County health officials and FBI agents” were on the scene at LAX to greet the plane and vomiting passenger. Why the huge response? She had been to Africa. It turns out, she had not been to one of the most heavily affected countries in West Africa but had been to South Africa — and she had airsickness, not a viral hemorrhagic fever. 

Panicking over potential Ebola exposure from someone traveling from South Africa (about 3,000 miles from the outbreak zone) is somewhat akin to worrying about risk of exposure to enterovirus in Managua, Nicaragua, when there’s an outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia, (about 2,900 miles apart). The three countries most heavily affected in the current Ebola outbreak are Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Though there have also been reports of cases in Senegal and Nigeria, Ebola has been contained in both countries, with no new infections reported in the last 21 days. (The same cannot be said for the United States, which has had a new case reported just this week.) As we see in the below map, South Africa is almost as far from the outbreak zone as you can get while still being in Africa.

Africa is big. Really big. As this resource from Boston University’s African Studies program shows, the combined land masses of the United States (including Alaska), Europe, and China are all smaller than the African continent.  The United States — including Alaska — would fit into Africa three times. Like South Africa, Sudan — from where a Brooklyn teenager who is ill with flu-like symptoms had traveled when New York health authorities thought he might have been exposed to Ebola — is incredibly far away from the Ebola outbreak zone. Moreover, air travel from one African country to another — especially outside of each region — is difficult, and most commercial airlines have canceled flights into and out of the airports in the outbreak zone. Someone needing to travel from Liberia to Khartoum would have to transit via another country, probably in Europe or the Middle East, to get there, and the expense and difficulty of such travel, coupled with enhanced screening procedures for passengers originating from the Ebola zone, make it extremely improbable that someone would be infected with Ebola in a place like Sudan.

Ebola is a scary virus. But it is unreasonable to suspect Ebola exposure when traveling, interacting with, or evaluating the health symptoms of individuals from African countries far from the outbreak zone. Moreover, exercising an overabundance of unnecessary caution means that resources that might be needed for other infectious disease crises are wasted.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a serious epidemic and though the numbers of infected and dead from Ebola are very likely an underestimate,  at last count, the World Health Organization estimated 8,399 were infected and 4,033 had died from Ebola in this current outbreak. In late September, UNICEF estimated 3,700 children were left orphans because of Ebola.

As if the loss of life weren’t enough, the negative effects of the lack of geographic knowledge about Africa in this Ebola crisis are also having real and negative economic impacts for Africans whose countries and lives are untouched by Ebola. Estimates of the economic damage to be caused by Ebola are as high as $33 billion. Whatever the ultimate cost, everyone agrees that Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia’s economies will be deeply and negatively impacted. Much of that damage is likely unavoidable because people in heavily affected countries engage in “aversion behavior” — or taking actions driven by fear alone (e.g., employees not going to work for fear of being exposed to Ebola).

But this Ebola outbreak is wreaking havoc on African economies beyond the three most heavily affected by Ebola, and that damage is completely avoidable. The East and Southern African safari industry provides a good example. Bookings for safaris there — including for the famed Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania — have plummeted due to the Ebola outbreak. In a survey of 500 safari tour operators, found a majority of respondents had a decrease in bookings and an increase in cancellations.

These actions are based in fear, not reality. We are faced with risk every day, and would be better suited to understand our relative risks if we appreciated where in the world some places are.

We leave you with a bit of irony — a public college in Texas (with a current confirmed Ebola case) is apparently denying admission to students from Nigeria (no current Ebola cases) because of the Ebola outbreak: