Ebola and the crisis in Greece

On 6 December 2013, a two-year-old boy died in the Southern Guinean village of Meliandou after a four-day battle with fever, black diarrhea and excruciating vomiting. Emile’s death sent ripples around the world. He was called the ‘zero patient’, the first known victim of Ebola hemorrhagic fever.

Deadly and highly contagious, Ebola virus was first identified in Africa but it is now knocking on the doors of the West.  Though Emile’s role has been disputed, Ebola’s global impact continues unabated, haaving already killed 4,960 people and infected a reported 13,000.

Ebola was first discovered by a Belgian scientific team in 1976 though some theories trace its origin to antiquity, identifying it in the Golden Age of Greece.  Dr. Patrick Olson, an epidemiologist at the Naval Medical Center of San Diego, argues that modern-day Ebola symptoms bear a striking resemblance to  those of the Africa-imported  plague mentioned by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago.

Nevertheless, current knowledge of Ebola remains insufficient.

On a scale of 1 to 10, we know 3 about Ebola, maybe less,says Karl Johnson, former director of the Special Pathogens Branch of the Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an eye-witness of the initial virus outbreak near the Ebola River in Zaire, 1976.

Of course, in the US alone, two million citizens are infected annually with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with 23,000 of them succumbing to their infections. These staggering figures are not enough to shut down schools or even the Pentagon – but the mere suspicion of Ebola does. Seventy per cent of polled Americans consented to having all civilian flights from and to the three Ebola-rampant African nations banned.  Fueled by the media, Ebola – a genuine health and humanitarian threat – is morphing into a political game of recrimination and scapegoating.

Greece is particularly susceptible.

The nation is in the grip of its worst economic crisis in its modern history. Situated at the crossroads between three continents, the wars, poverty and civil unrest on its south and east have made Greece the  ‘storehouse’ of irregular immigration to Europe. Hordes of people seeking a new life are coming to a country overwhelmed with anger and desperation at the barrage of IMF austerity measures. This has fed a brutal anti-immigrant backlash  among Greeks, some of whom have opted to turn to  extreme nationalism.

Close-knit and (until the 90s) homogeneous, Greek society is still struggling to come to terms with the influx of mass-immigration in the aftermath of the Eastern Bloc collapse.  It’s now becoming clear that the stigmatisation of Africans is more transmissible than the virus itself in Greece as well.

Last October, Greek Ministry of Health sent a directive to second-tier Greek club PAS Lamia that Sierra Leone’s John Kamara not train or play with the team for three weeks. According to a BBC Sport report, Kamara was banished because he had traveled to Yaoundé, Africa, where he had played for the Leone Stars in their Africa Cup of Nations ties in Cameroon.

“[While we were in Cameroon] they checked our temperatures every morning and every evening.
I have told the club I am ready to undergo any medical they want me to do – as far as I am concerned I don’t have the Ebola virus,’ said the flabbergasted Kamara.

Less than two weeks afterwards, during a game for Greek Football League’s second division, Kamara pulled up his jersey to show a T-shirt with the logo ‘We are West Africans, We are Not a Virus’ and the flags of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. He signaling his support for the other West-African footballers playing in Greek League’s lower categories but the disciplinary committee of Greek Football League still called Kamara to a hearing.

Away from the spotlights and on the streets of a decaying downtown neighborhood of Athens, Momka, Kamara’s compatriot, collects cans from dumpsters and sells them to can centers.  An unauthorised immigrant, he paid 1350 dollars to a Turkish smuggler to set foot on Europe through Turkey, 700 dollars more than the Nigerian Kevin, who also reached Greece via Turkey. Momka lives in a ghettoized area of Athens, where he shares a two-roomed flat with five more African immigrants. Kevin, whose plans to sell wholesale clothing back to Nigeria fell through, lives in a parking lot where a dozen immigrants are crammed like sardines.

Neither Kevin nor Momka has gone through medical tests.

Vast numbers of newly arrived immigrants in Greece are not inoculated for tuberculosis, polio, measles, and other communicable diseases. The alleged ‘ticking’ of a health time bomb has led the Greek Secretariat of Public Health to come up with scenarios to tackle Ebola at its root.

On air, aircraft crews will isolate passengers with Ebola symptoms and have them wear surgical masks and gloves. On landing, passengers from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria will fill out a questionnaire constructed to document their epidemiological data. If their answers raise suspicions, they will be quarantined or rushed to the nearest hospital. In ports, remote islands and other ‘hot’ spots of immigration, immigrants will be interned in day centers and remain there for twenty-one days or until the doctor signs release orders.

But it’s not the first time Africans have been accused of bringing ‘microbes’ to Greece. Until 2013, it was the West Nile Virus that dominated anti-African rhetoric in Greece..

A few months before London Olympics, a Greek triple jumper tweeted: ‘With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food!!!’ The  Greek Olympic Committee did disqualify the promising athlete from the Olympic team but her expulsion sparked torrents of support for a gifted athlete who was just ‘kidding’. Immediately thereafter, Golden Dawn, Greece’s notorious extreme nationalist party, proclaimed the arthropod-borne virus as the disease of illegal African invaders.

Golden Dawn members consistently seize opportunities to hammer home how much strain ‘illegal aliens’ put on the dwindling Greek public health system.

Today, many of the jingoistic, flag-waving outlets have replaced West Nile Virus with Ebola.  A popular nationalist website  states that Ebola might be the ‘scourge of God’ or  represent one of the four Apocalypse riders that will supposedly  wipe out huge numbers of Earth’s inhabitants.

Other digital voices pray for the fate of medical staff placed at such close range to the ‘carriers of dirt’. They accuse Zionists and the higher echelons of the New-World Order of being part of the conspiracy, part of a plan to corrupt social fabric and contaminate ‘pure’ Greek blood.

Near the dustbins where Momka and Kevin scavenge for cans lives Evelina. She is an eight-year-old girl born of immigrant parents from an adjoining Balkan country. Her mother crossed Greek borders on foot and even suffered a miscarriage during her risky journey. Yet Evelina is light-colored and ‘European-looking’ – and she’s already coming to subscribe to the notion that it’s only ‘blacks’ who carry diseases.

Stav Dimitropoulos

Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in major US, UK, Australian, and Canadian outlets.

More by Stav Dimitropoulos ›

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  1. Poignant and well-written. It’s funny that it is always the areas downtown that suffer. Athenian suburbs seem to be doing well on the other hand.

  2. I really do not see any relation between the greek crisis and ebola.
    The crisis is coming to an end anyway as the greek economy stopped contracting. Actually is currently growing faster than most EU economies.

    To the best of my knowledge, Greece is not a west african country and there is no one inflicted by ebola so far. AND tHE gOLDEN DAWN is in jail… You see! no reason to be worried

  3. One friend of mine recently told me about a man in his fifties who committed suicide because of debts…not really sure that the crisis is over…I don’t see myself a panic in Greece, that’s true, because we are always behind with everything but I’ve heard people saying that many illegal immigrants from Africa might give them Ebola.

  4. One friend of mine recently told me about a man in his fifties who committed suicide because of debts…not really sure that the crisis is over…I live in Lamia and saw some reactions from people after Kamara’s story…

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