The Justice Department issued new guidelines on Monday designed to help government workers avoid illegally discriminating against people because of the Ebola virus.
Citing “increased reports of discrimination in the United States against people who are or are perceived to be from an African country or of African descent,” the department’s Civil Rights Division sent out non-discrimination principles for federal, state and local government agencies.
The core advice is to ensure there’s no Ebola-related bullying or harassment of people who are from West Africa, where the World Health Organization says the virus has killed more than 6,800 people, or who are of West African descent.
The Justice Department’s guidance comes with several examples of what could count as Ebola discrimination, such as a school requiring that children stay home if they are from Africa or of African descent, even though public health officials haven’t called for a quarantine.
“Likewise, if a school fails to effectively address Ebola-related harassment and bullying of students, that school may be in violation of its legal obligations,” the guidelines say.
The U.S. hasn’t seen a confirmed transmission of the virus since October, but at the height of the domestic Ebola panic in the fall, several state and local authorities went far beyond the advice of public health experts in their Ebola vigilance.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), for instance, told medical professionals to stay out of Louisiana if they’d recently traveled from an Ebola-afflicted country. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) ordered the quarantine of a nurse returning from West Africa in a tent behind a hospital, even though the nurse didn’t have any symptoms. In Kentucky, a a parochial school put a teacher on leave after she’d traveled to Kenya, even though Kenya is nowhere near West Africa. The teacher subsequently resigned. And at Navarro College, a public community college in Texas, school officials mailed letters rejecting international applicants — even rescinding the acceptance of some — from African countries, even ones from countries without confirmed Ebola cases. (The school has since apologized for sending out “incorrect information.”)
Despite the science involved, and repeated statements by health officials about Ebola transmission, public fear in the United States has driven stigmatization and discrimination against individuals traveling into the United States from the Western African countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak, other African nations, and Latin American countries. We need to act on sound science, not fear in America, when dealing with Ebola.