Ebola rumours, false reports stoke fears of immigrant threat at Texas border

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  • As the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo spreads to Uganda, false reports are suggesting it poses a threat at the Texas border.
  • The tension with the provinces is mounting as federal Liberals try to juggle economic and environmental priorities.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

America’s Ebola panic

The deadly Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has spread to neighbouring Uganda, raising fears of a wider pandemic in Central Africa.

But some Americans are convinced that the real danger lies 13,000 kilometres away from there — at the Texas border.

Right-wing websites and social media accounts have been playing up reports that 300 citizens of the Congo made asylum claims at the southern U.S. border during the first week of June. They’ve been falsely asserting that the migrants have been allowed into the country without being screened for Ebola or other infectious diseases.

Earlier this week, a correspondent for the conspiracy-minded Infowars site tried to force his way into a San Antonio migrant centre with a camera in tow, to report on the supposed threat.

The city was getting enough worried calls that it held a press conference on Tuesday to try and debunk the misinformation.

People crossing the border near Kasindi, in eastern Congo just across from the Ugandan town of Bwera, on Wednesday have their temperature taken to check for symptoms of Ebola. (Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/Associated Press)

Colleen Bridger, San Antonio’s health director, confirmed that 250 families from Central Africa had passed through the city in recent days and that more are expected in the weeks to come. But she called the internet storm “much ado about nothing.”

“Any rumours that they are bringing Ebola, or have risk of Ebola, are patently false,” she said.

Bridger laid out several reasons:

  • The migrants have all been screened for infectious diseases on multiple occasions at border points in Africa, South and Central America, and the United States.
  • They all hail from parts of the Congo that are several hundred kilometres distant from the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak, in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
  • All have been in transit for much longer than the disease’s three week incubation period.

“If you do the math and think about the fact that they left their country many, many months ago, there’s no way possible that these individuals are bringing Ebola into our country,” Bridger told reporters.

And with regards to concerns about other infectious diseases — the Congo is also dealing with a raging measles outbreak that has sickened 87,000 people and killed an estimated 1,500 so far this year — Bridger archly noted that most of the migrants who pass through San Antonio have higher vaccination rates than American citizens.

Colleen Bridger, the health director and interim assistant city manager of San Antonio, Texas, held a press conference June 11 to dispel rumours that Congolese immigrants crossing into the U.S. were carrying Ebola. (Facebook)

Of course, none of this is stopping the online panic and sharing of lies.

The United States has a lengthy history of overblown concerns about disease arriving at its borders, closely tied to anti-immigrant sentiments.

Similar claims about Ebola-carrying migrants crossing the southern frontier were made by a Republican congressman during the last major outbreak in 2014. And Donald Trump himself expressed fears about the spread of the disease.

What people should be concerned about is the situation on the ground in Congo, and now Uganda.

The epidemic, which began last August, has infected at least 2,062 people, killing 1,390 of them — a 67 per cent fatality rate. But the actual number of cases may be much higher.

International efforts to contain the disease are failing in the face of fighting between the Congo government and rebel groups in the region, distrust among locals, and nearly 200 attacks on health workers and treatment centres.

The World Health Organization will meet in Geneva on Friday to determine whether to declare this Ebola outbreak a global health crisis, thereby freeing up more funds and putting some pressure on donor nations.

And today the European Union announced an additional $5.26 million in Ebola-fighting funds for Uganda and South Sudan, on top of the $25.5 million that the bloc has already given the Congo.

A security officer wears latex gloves as he inspects people crossing the border in Mpondwe, the Uganda border town with the Democratic Republic of Congo, on Thursday. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s mostly missing is the American response.

Last summer, the Trump administration tried to slash Ebola funding by recapturing $252 million US that was left over from dealing with the 2014-16 outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa before it was ultimately brought under control.

And there were reports in October that U.S. Ebola experts were being kept away from Congo’s hot zone for fears of a “Benghazi type” disaster.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it has activated its Emergency Operations Center. The Stage 3 alert — the lowest level — will allow the CDC to bring more expertise and resources to bear on the Congo crisis.

Although the news release took pains to stress that “the risk of global spread of Ebola remains low,” and that the move “does not mean that the threat of Ebola to the United States has increased.”

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At Issue

The tension with the provinces is mounting as federal Liberals try to juggle economic and environmental priorities, The National co-host Rosemary Barton writes.

Parliament is expected to rise some time next week and MPs (at least those running again) will take a minute to catch their breath before they have to think about months of election campaigning.

Before then, however, the House has a few tricky bits of business to get done.

Namely, there are some key pieces of legislation this government wants passed as part of its attempt to balance the demands of the environment and the economy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to attend a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Bill C-69 is the massive overhaul of how resource projects will be renewed in this country. The one the Conservatives tried to completely rewrite with some 188 amendments.

The government has rejected the vast majority of those, but it did bend on some key points. Namely, giving the provinces a little more power in the review process and giving the Canadian Energy Regulator a little more power in deciding who can appear as a witness during the process.

But that is unlikely to be enough for the six Premiers who recently wrote a letter to the Prime Minister calling on the government to accept the amendments.

Justin Trudeau had little time for such criticism this week, saying: “It’s absolutely irresponsible for Conservative premiers to be threatening our national unity if they don’t get their way.”

This tension is happening just days before a decision on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, which is expected to come next Tuesday.

And days before the Conservative leader finally unveils his own climate action plan, which will happen next Wednesday.

We will sort through all this tonight with Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and our pal Eric Grenier.

See you then. Only a couple of At Issues left before we all get a little break before the run-up to the election … and I do mean little.

– Rosemary Barton

  • WATCH: At Issue tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on … 

An enthusiastic invasion.

Quote of the moment

“He had surgery to repair his femur, his hip, his elbow. He’s got broken ribs, a little bit of internal damage as well, so he’s staying in intensive care for the next couple of days.”

– Dave Brailsford, head of the Ineos cycling team, updates the status of Chris Froome. The four-time Tour de France champion underwent eight hours of surgery after a horrific crash during practice yesterday.

Medical staff are seen on the roof of the Centre Hospitalier of Roanne Wednesday as they prepare to transfer British cyclist Christopher Froome to another hospital for further treatment. He fell on a training run ahead of the fourth stage of the Criterium du Dauphine race on Wednesday, and will miss the Tour de France, Team Ineos leader Dave Brailsford has confirmed. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • Two tankers struck in suspected attacks in Gulf of Oman (Guardian)
  • Protesters gather in Hong Kong, government offices shut after violence (CBC)
  • Putin says U.S.-Russia relations are getting “worse and worse” (Reuters)
  • Indian heat wave, soaring up to 123 degrees, has killed at least 36 (NYTimes)
  • Uganda bans public gatherings amid Ebola fears (Al Jazeera)
  • Boris Johnson gets most votes in first round of U.K. Conservative leadership race (CBC)
  • Spain’s soccer league fined for app that listened for illegal broadcasts in bars (El Pais)
  • “Don’t drink and drone,” say Japanese MPs (Agence France Presse)

Today in history

June 13, 1975: Cosmonauts and astronauts to meet in space

A month before Russian cosmonaut blasted off towards their first rendezvous in space with U.S. astronauts, Western TV networks were invited to take a tour of Star City, the training centre just outside Moscow. The commander of the Soyuz mission, Alexey Leonov (who was also the first man to walk in space) shows off his English. “We like work with American astronauts very much,” he tells CBC’s Lloyd Robertson. “They are very hard working guys.” The Detente in orbit started on July 17, when an Apollo and a Soyuz capsule docked for 44 hours of photos and handshakes.

CBC reporter Lloyd Robertson visits Star City, home of the Soviet space program, in 1975. 3:35

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