Kevin J.A. Thomas

Global Epidemics, Local Implications: African Immigrants and the Ebola Crisis in Dallas

HFS Books, 2019

272 pages


Reviewed by J.A. Strub

Global Epidemics, Local Implications: African Immigrants and the Ebola Crisis in Dallas explores how communities of West African migrants in a Texas metropolis negotiated the social and biopolitical hardships that arose from the trans-regional epidemic that began in 2014. The book considers not only the ways in which the increasingly global movement of peoples facilitated the spread of the disease but also how representations and media portrayals of the epidemic within the United States contributed to the scapegoating and subsequent marginalization of African migrants. Nonetheless, it concludes by highlighting how coordinated community actions afforded migrants agency, allowing them to challenge the virus’s primacy both in Dallas and West Africa.

Kevin J.A. Thomas, who holds a professorship in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has written extensively on the intersection of immigration and labor, racial and ethnic exclusion, and public health. In Global Epidemics, Local Implications, Thomas draws from epidemiology, journalistic archaeology, migration studies, and theories of racialization and social networks to contextualize ethnographic accounts from leaders in Dallas’s African migrant community, as well as from humanitarian aid workers who collaborated with them.

Published in December of 2019, Global Epidemics, Local Implications first reached readers on the cusp of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since its publication, the phenomena is described as relatively locally contained– mass fear over contagion, racial discrimination rooted in the virus’s foreign status, harmful mischaracterizations by the media, and the role of community agency and collective action in stymieing the spread of disease – suddenly took center stage in new and even broader contexts. This case study of Ebola – a disease with a higher death rate than SARS-CoV-2 but ultimately with a more localized reach – provides a microcosm for approaching questions addressing discrimination, the global movement of goods and people, and community responses to crises of wellbeing within the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

The book begins by seizing on the 2014 death of Thomas Duncan, a Liberian national who, while visiting family in Dallas, was the first person to die of Ebola on US soil. It goes on to look at the networks of movement between Dallas and West Africa, the risks and challenges faced by migrants at the outbreak’s onset, and the ways in which both exposed and non-exposed African immigrants became stigmatized and subsequently sought agency in spite of discrimination.

Drawing from numerous historical examples, Thomas argues that international migration has often been associated, rightly or wrongly, with the spread of infectious diseases. By the late twentieth century, most new immigrants to the United States were emigrating from countries in the tropics with weak healthcare infrastructure, thus exacerbating this association. To make matters worse, many new migrants live in informal, low-grade, or overcrowded housing, resulting in an increased propensity for contracting communicable diseases. While globalization is hardly a new paradigm, the breakneck pace of human movement enabled by low-cost air travel and encouraged by transnational labor flows in the early twenty-first century has accelerated the rates at which contagion propagates.

Global Epidemics, Local Implications deals heavily with questions of disparate treatment. Thomas is keen to highlight how European and American researchers and doctors who contracted the virus were afforded special attention, given access to advanced medical technology, and evacuated to hospitals in their countries of origin despite the associated risks. This conduct contrasts markedly with the ways in which African immigrants in Dallas, regardless of their state of health, were discriminated against and treated as menaces to public health.

Thomas characterizes such treatment as in line with the historical reactions of host countries toward foreign and minority populations during times of disease, drawing linkages between the treatment of Russian Jews and Chinese during historical epidemics to that of West Africans during Ebola. He also points to how media coverage of the disease, which highlighted its rapid infection rate and foreign origins, contributed to anti-African sentiment during the outbreak. Race, ethnicity, language – argues the author – became stand-ins for non-existent markers of health and sickliness, with Africans taking the blame en masse for a disease that most had little to do with. The subjects of stigmatization thus became racialized, as the virus came to serve as both a pretext for and an extension of already existing prejudices that compound xenophobia with anti-blackness.

Thomas challenges the narrative of victimhood by arguing that, in the Dallas case study, immigrant communities exhibited agency in framing their relationship to the outbreak. They did so by mitigating the virus’s spread within their own diasporic communities and challenging media portrayals that conflated ethnicity with pestilence. Perhaps more importantly, the author powerfully outlines how migrants in Dallas mounted impressive financial and humanitarian aid efforts that contributed to the impediment of the disease’s spread in West Africa.

The observations made in this book will interest researchers across various disciplines and levels of expertise. For scholars whose work touches on migration, public health, and stigmatization, this book provides valuable insights drawn from a complex and current case study. From a sociological standpoint, studying and analyzing how immigrants react and are reacted to during epidemics is essential to understanding the means of their incorporation and enfranchisement into the host society. The author’s first book – Diverse Pathways: Race and the Socioeconomic Incorporation of Black, White, and Arab-origin Africans in the US – addresses questions of cross-racial incorporation with a broad brush, but the specificity of the Dallas case study provides distinctive insights into the particular mechanics of social acceptance, stigmatization, and race relations within a crisis context. For those interested in a fascinating and prescient case that highlights the capacity of mutual aid and community fortitude, in spite of marginalization and crisis and by way of informal diasporic economies of care, this book will be of particular interest.

In addition to its strength as an involved work of research, Global Epidemics, Local Implications ultimately derives its persuasive power by way of its pathos. It shows how, even in the face of a crisis that compounds the threat of death with racial stigmatization, a diasporic community can show resilience and work collaboratively not only to challenge stereotypes within the host society but also to levy a substantive campaign to fight the disease back at home.