The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations doesn’t want increased concerns about possible Ebola outbreaks to coincide with hostile or illegal treatment of African immigrants. Anyone witnessing or experiencing that is encouraged to report the situation to PCHR.
“This is one of those situations where a rumor can turn into an ugly action and innocent people wind up persecuted by their neighbors, and already vulnerable and marginalized people feel even further isolated,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “Working together, we can help keep things from spiraling out of control, so that foolish, daily comments don’t escalate into something worse.”
Last Thursday, City Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. held hearings to explore the city’s readiness for a possible Ebola outbreak. An array of public safety officials outlined their assessment of both the potential exposure threat and planned response, should a case be reported in Philadelphia.
The infectious and fast-moving disease already has claimed one life on American soil, with two additional health care workers who had attended that victim also suffering from the virus. Global officials have pointed to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia as the center of the outbreak.
Since 2006, Philadelphia has laid claim to the largest Liberian population in the United States. Many of those who emigrated here fled war in their homeland but may still travel to visit family.
Public threats of the past – from the 1793 yellow fever epidemic to the 9/11 attacks – at times have included elements of ethnic fear or intolerance, Landau said. With mounting breathless news reports about possible outbreaks of the virus, there’s room for backlash fueled by unfortunate and erroneous information and rumor.
“We realize that some immigrants, based on their life’s experiences, may not voluntarily speak up when they’re facing trouble. They might be suspicious, especially of government officials,” Landau said. “We get it. But if you’re being harassed or intimidated, call us. Don’t be afraid. We can – and will – help bring order and restore harmony, to a school, to a block or a neighborhood. That’s what we do.”
PCHR is the agency charged with diffusing inter-group conflict within the city and ensure fair dealings in employment, housing, public accommodations and real estate, as outlined in the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, Philadelphia’s guiding civil rights legislation.