A rudimentary map demonstrating that Africa is not synonymous with the Ebola virus has hit a nerve online.
There has only been one reported death outside of west Africa, but recent cases in the United States and Spain of those who had recently returned from affected countries have put the world on high-alert. Fear and misinformation have not been far behind, with countries as far asNorth Korea imposing draconian quarantine measures.
An English chemist in the Netherlands thinks he’s found a solution to some of the hyperbole: a simple infographic highlighting where the Ebola threat is a reality. It has been shared over 10,000 times, translated into Japanese, and spawned offshoots, including a tongue-in-cheek map of America for “interested Africans”.
It focuses on the three countries officially in a “state of emergency”: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the combined death toll nears 5,000.
Anthony England has disseminated the map through his Twitter account@EbolaPhone. Recently unemployed, he set up the handle in August: “as Ebola rolled on and didn’t go away. I am sitting here looking for jobs, not doing anything, I realised I can be useful”, he said.
For him, information is key to fight a culture of “maybeitis”, the fear of a “mystery African disease”. “Ebola might be in Toronto … it turns out to be negative”, but puts an entire city on edge, he says.
The map, made in a hurry at 2am one morning, feels similar to the controversial Russia – not Russia one tweeted by Nato Canada, but England hadn’t seen it before designing his.
The heightened interest in the campaign comes as countries report an Ebola affect on tourism. The Hotel’s Association of Tanzania have said that business is down by 30-40%. Neighbouring Kenya has also suffered as Ebola worries merge with the fallout from terror attacks: “Kenya shouldn’t even be mentioned when Ebola is mentioned … it’s hurtful and ignorant,” says England.
Aside from the viral boost, what has been the biggest impact? On Wednesday it was retweeted by the Kenyan ministry of foreign affairs, and he has heard from teachers who’ve used the maps in class, he says.
Yesterday NewsOMatic, an app which “offers kids from ages seven to 11 their first daily news experience on mobile devices”, shared a versionsent in by a young reader.
Last month west Africans hit back against mounting stigma in the USusing the hashtag #IAmLiberianNotaVirus. Shoana Solomon kicked it off after someone told her 9-year-old daughter that she must have the disease because she was Liberian.
Footballer John Kamara from Sierra Leone echoed this sentiment last week, showing off a t-shirt that said: “we are west Africans not a virus”. He is reportedly facing sanctions over his actions.
Kamara had previously been banned from training with his Greek club for three weeks after returning from an Africa Cup of Nations match in Cameroon. The country has no reported cases and Kamara had not been to Sierra Leone for over a year prior to the ban.
England’s map has attracted criticism for ignoring countries that have suffered outbreaks including Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Commentator Atane Ofiaja objects to the “reductive” approach arguing that Africans should be rallying behind the disaster-hit countries, not distancing themselves.
Earlier this week England defended the map to the Washington Post, highlighting that “there are only three problem countries”. But can the map be updated? “It absolutely can” but if the situation in Mali escalates he says he’ll only shade in the affected area, not “condemn” the whole country.
Journalist Siddhartha Mitter, a west African specialist, took to Twitter to criticise the map, arguing that it “hyper-stigmatises the three countries”.
“In a word the ‘no Ebola’ ‘map’ is colonial. Colonial in origin, in method, in dissemination, and, sadly, in its glad adoption by so many.” It is a map “by and for outsiders”, reinforcing the narrative it is trying to undermine,he added.
Africa is a Country, a news site whose name is a play on age-old notion of Africa as homogenous, tweeted the graphic suggesting it could replace CNN coverage. Mitter, a contributor to the site said it was “a rare time when I disagree with the party line”.
In the meantime, England’s Ebola Phone platform trundles on. The map has been his standout piece, but he has been using various bits of social content to get his message across – from riffs on films to memes and website mock-ups. He has also made a t-shirt to raise funds, but it is unclear where they will go.
Does he have plans to update the map? “In truth I’m not sure if it’s very handsome. I’m sure other people can do better”.