NEW YORK CITY — “Fight Ebola – not doctors,” chanted protesters in New York City on Thursday. Other slogans they shouted included, “Hey, Cuomo. Hey, Christie. Africa needs treatment — not quarantine,” as well as “Healthcare workers are under attack” and “Free Kaci Hickox.”
HIV/AIDS activists came out in force to take a stance on political responses to Ebola on Thursday. They marched up the east side of Manhattan to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s offices in order to express fears that policies like mandatory quarantines and travel bans could exacerbate the current health crisis. The protesters numbered about 100, according to one organizer.
“Health care workers are not the enemy,” said Annette Gaudino, as she kicked off the protest outside Bellevue Hospital, where Dr. Craig Spencer is being treated for the virus. “They’re what we need to help end this pandemic. We need to start treating them with dignity.”
Activists with ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) spoke out just after negotiations between nurse Kaci Hickox and the government of Maine over a mandatory quarantine had broken down — despite what Gov. Paul LePage’s office described as repeated efforts to work with the Ebola nurse. The state filed a legal motion, which resulted in a Maine judge issuing a temporary order instructing Hickox to avoid all public places and remain three feet away from people at all times. Those orders came despite the fact that Hickox continues to exhibit no visible symptoms of the virus. Medical research dating back to the virus’ first appearance in 1976 show that Ebola is not transmitted before symptoms occur.
By Friday afternoon, however, a district court judge ruled that the state could not restrict the nurse’s movements because she is not a threat to public health. President Obama and leading health officials have criticized the mandatory quarantines, which have been publicly championed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.“Kaci Hickox is a hero for putting her body on the line, first to save people from Ebola and now to save America from a civil rights and health care debacle,” said Dr. Howard Grossman.
Hickox’s has refused to give in to orders from both Christie and then LePage to remain in isolation for 21 days — the longest incubation period of the virus.
“Chris Christie is a man who thinks he knows more than the CDC. Last time I checked, he doesn’t have an MD, a PhD, or an MPH behind his name,” Guadino said. “He is a politician, and if you’re getting your health information from politicians, you’re doing it wrong.”
Hickox — who was isolated in a tent with a portable toilet during her time in a New Jersey hospital and asserts her human rights have been violated — fears health care workers returning home from the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could face other mistreatment. Furthermore, she argues the three-week quarantines will discourage other volunteers from joining the fight to end the spread of the virus at the heart of the outbreak in West Africa.
“I am fighting for something much more than myself,” Hickox said. “It scares me to think of how they’re going to be treated and how they’re going to feel.”
Protester Jeremiah Johnson said he was participating in the march because, like many HIV-positive men, he could relate to those experiencing undue discrimination as a result of public panic. He was discharged from the Peace Corps because of his HIV diagnosis, even though he posed no public safety risk.
“As I read about what is happening to Kaci Hockox and those who care about her, as I hear stories of healthcare workers at Bellevue hospital experiencing stigma, and as I hear about African immigrants being shunned by their communities and even experiencing violence, I’m reminded of the unnecessary pain I experienced as a result of irrational fear,” he said.
During a planning meeting for the protest, Johnson, who is the HIV Prevention Research and Policy Coordinator at the Treatment Action Group (TAG), called attention to the two grade school-aged immigrants in New York’s Bronx neighborhood who were beaten up by their fellow classmates and called Ebola, as well as the job losses and other stigmatization faced by those in Staten Island’s Liberian community. As he stood in front of Bellevue, Johnson recalled the height of the U.S. HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, when quarantines, travel bans and several other extreme measures were placed on those infected — even after it became apparent that such responses would do nothing to stop or slow the epidemic.“With the overly restrictive quarantine measures instituted by Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie, I fear that history may be repeating itself and just as before, we will see the unnecessary stigmatization and abuse of individuals associated with the current Ebola outbreak,” Johnson said.
The end result in the ’80s was that healthy people were shunned and quarantined, research was delayed, and sick people were denied access to healthcare — all of which fueled the needless spread of the epidemic, recalled Grossman, who is president of AlphaBetterCare, a healthcare provider working with the area LGBT community. At the time, he added, those suffering from HIV were subjects of violence, houses were burned down, people were beaten and thrown out on the street, and children were forced out of schools. That response created a legacy of fear and stigma that has lived on to 2014.
“It is frightening to watch politicians play the same games with people’s lives and the public health that they played 30 years ago around HIV infection,” he said. “Perhaps once the elections are over some of those politicians will actually grow a spine, maybe even with a brain attached and we can get to rational policies.”
Gaundino, Grossman, Johnson, and the rest of the protesters want to make sure science trumps any possible short-term political gain. As the protest wrapped on Thursday night, they left with a message: We’ll be back, and we’ll be stronger.
Grossman, who was a first responder in New York hospitals during the AIDS epidemic put it simply: “No one understands better than AIDS activists how policies that are fear-based and unscientific are destructive and harmful to the public health.”