On Thursday, protests by the country’s leading HIV/AIDS activists over the mandatory quarantines imposed on health care workers returning from the frontlines of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa are set to hit a boiling point.
Led by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), activists will march from Bellevue Hospital, where U.S. Ebola patient Dr. Craig Spencer is currently being treated, to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, as they demand that New York, New Jersey, and other states overturn all Ebola policies that are not supported by science.
“These are policies that are based in polemics to garner additional votes in upcoming elections and to appease a hysterical electorate,” said ACT UP co-founder Eric Sawyer, pointing to both the 2014 midterms, as well as Christie's rumored presidential ambitions.
Though Christie and Cuomo loosened their initial hardline demands, both governors have held strong to their policy of 21-day quarantines for health care workers who have treated Ebola patients – even if they have no symptoms of the virus. Years of medical research shows that Ebola is not transmitted before symptoms occur. And when symptoms first appear in the body, viral load is generally very low and sometimes even undetectable. President Barack Obama and leading health officials have criticized the mandatory quarantines.
ACT UP gathered at New York City’s LGBT Community Center on Monday to lay out its list of demands for Thursday’s protest. They are: the immediate lifting of mandatory quarantines and travel bans; declaring that all U.S. hospitals be deemed sanctuaries where undocumented immigrants can receive care; support for all health workers and increased U.S. funding to fight Ebola in West Africa; and an end to stigmatizing sick Ebola patients.
Working slogan ideas for posters include “Doctors are Not Criminals – Support Health Workers,” “Cuomo and Christie: Dumb and Dumber,” and “The Politics of Fear Only Fuels Ebola.”
“What the U.S. government needs is easy to understand, scientifically based information about the transmission of the Ebola virus,” Sawyer said. “You can only get Ebola with direct contact of people who are symptomatic from their bodily fluids, and you can’t get it from sitting next to someone who is African or the handle of a subway car.”
For long-term activists and HIV survivors like Sawyer, these policies indicate that not much has changed in the more than 30 years since HIV/AIDS became pandemic in the U.S. The result has been a national mobilization of HIV/AIDS activists, who in advance of Thursday’s protest have written strongly-worded letters to both governors.Experienced in pandemic response, the activists argue that vitriol and opportunism are once again the U.S. government’s trump cards in its approach to disease response. As the HIV virus spread rapidly in the 1980s, politicians in power called for what are now perceived to be draconian measures, including a travel and immigration ban that remained in place until the Obama administration, and sought to keep all people with HIV out of the country. Similar bans are now being explored for Ebola patients.
“This ill-informed U.S.-crafted policy was replicated by over 140 countries around the world in an attempt to wall HIV away from their people,” Sawyer said. “The 32 million people that died of AIDS and the over 30 million people currently living with HIV taught us how well stigma fueled-attempts to quarantine the sick from the healthy worked.”
From these bans to quarantines, calls for isolation only further served to stigmatize those living with HIV at a time when workplace, housing, and health care discrimination were prevalent. Funeral homes were even hesitant to handle the bodies of the dying, according to Jeremiah Johnson, HIV Prevention Research and Policy Coordinator at the Treatment Action Group (TAG).
“Decisions to politicize the issue of AIDS and push through laws based on completely unfounded fears led to further neglect of communities impacted by the virus who desperately needed assistance and created a legacy of fear and stigma that lives on to this day,” Johnson said.
Johnson pointed immediately to the story of two immigrant brothers from Senegal, West Africa who were allegedly beaten and badly injured at their grade school in the Bronx by students who called them “Ebola.” In Staten Island, the New York City borough’s Liberian community is running a social media campaign called “I am not a virus” as many lose their jobs. Already, stigma, which is arguably the largest obstacle to the worldwide eradication of HIV/AIDS, is widespread and targeting communities linked to the Ebola crisis -- not just those infected with the disease.
“The sensationalized politics of the Ebola epidemic and the few cases that have appeared or have been diagnosed in the U.S. is fueling public fear, stigma and discrimination and even violence against West Africans, travelers returning from the region, and is threatening to destroy these country’s economies,” Sawyer said.
Mandatory quarantines also run another large risk: They could discourage health care workers like Dr. Spencer from volunteering to fight the illness at its source, thus facilitating its spread. And they can lead to unnecessary human rights abuses. At its march planning meeting on Monday, ACT UP discussed Christie’s quarantine of Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox, who was reportedly quarantined in a tent with no shower and a portable toilet.
“The potentially devastating impact they will have on efforts to recruit health care workers to go to West Africa will ultimately ensure that the epidemic will rage out of control -- greatly increasing the chances that more cases will spread to international destinations,” Johnson said. “The notion that we can somehow close our doors, stick our heads in the sand, and wait for the epidemic to simply disappear is completely out of touch with reality.”
Cuomo and Christie aren’t the only targets. As ACT UP volunteer James Krellenstein prepared for Thursday’s march, he also called highlighted the need for an increased response from the federal government. Of concern is the fact that the World Health Organization still lacks commitments for staffing of 40% of Ebola Treatment Units in West Africa. When President Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday, he noted that no other nation was doing as much on Ebola as the U.S. Rather than sending troops, however, ACT UP would like to see the recruitment and deployment of seasoned health care workers to impacted areas.
“Perhaps President Obama should spend less time keeping score of who is doing more, and do more to ensure that the Ebola epidemic does not devolve into the worst biomedical crisis since the AIDS pandemic,” Krellenstein said.