Very far away

People at schools in various parts of the US are freaking out about Ebola because of a very flawed knowledge of geography, basic geography, as in, Africa is bigger than Rhode Island.

For instance, at a school in New Burlington, New Jersey, two Rwandan students are staying at home due to other parents’ fear that they will infect other children with Ebola. Rwanda is as close to the Ebola outbreak as New York City is to Seattle.

In Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a school principal’s recent visit to Zambia has led to a lot of parents choosing to keep their kids at home. But Zambia is in Southern Africa, over 3,000 miles away from the Ebola outbreak — the same distance between New Hampshire and Los Angeles.

I think people think distance shrinks internal distances – not from the perspective of the beholder, but literally. Africa is Far from Here so therefore it’s just a small thing like a magazine cover so therefore the virus can hop from one side to the other without even trying hard.

But in reality, Africa is a very big continent.

Africa is the world’s second largest continent. But it’s not unusual for Americans to classify it as a single entity, ignoring the many cultural, economic and geographic differences between its 47 countries. If three countries in Africa are going through an Ebola epidemic, the other 44 must be too, right?

Yeah, see, that’s what I mean. We don’t know much about it so we shrink it in our heads.

Wikimedia Commons



  1. says

    It seems like the whole rest of the world is very far away and compressed to some people. I was floored by the report of this 911 call:

    911 Operator: Sir, sir, listen to me. There’s an airline pilot there and he told you he had Ebola?
    Caller: Yes, he has been exposed. He came out of West Africa.
    911 Operator: He came from West Africa?
    Caller: From a European environment. Yep he has.
    911 Operator: You said you were exposed?
    Caller: I’m sitting next to him. And he has been on a flight from European countries.
    911 Operator: Is it just that you’ve been exposed, or are you having any of the symptoms?
    Caller: I’m sitting next to him and having dinner. And he just revealed that he’s been in the European countries, including west Africa.
    911 Operator: Ok, and are you having any chills or sweats?
    Caller: I am not exposed. I am not having any indications.

    They actually sent an ambulance!

  2. carlie says

    Here is a short compilation from the show Whose Line Is It Anyway in which Drew makes that very country/continent mistake. He is then skewered for it repeatedly for the rest of the show, because people ought to freaking know better.

  3. quixote says

    Boggle @1. Still boggling. Taking deep breath. That caller doesn’t know the difference between Europe and Africa? Huuuh? Or have I misunderstood something?

    As for the post itself, the thought that people are freaking out over visitors from anywhere in Africa is equally mindboggling. I wonder if they have that reaction if it’s a white African, or only when it’s black Africans.

  4. peterh says

    In Maine, a teacher who attended a conference in Dallas has been placed on leave because her attending that conference set some parents’ hair on fire.

  5. Sili says

    To be fair, the size of the US (or Austalia) is usually incomprehensible to us Europeans. And we tend to conflate all of the stereotypes into one big boogeyman.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    In Maine, a teacher who attended a conference in Dallas has been placed on leave because her attending that conference set some parents’ hair on fire.

    Well, this is quite understandable to me. It often seems like Texas has an epidemic of something that rots brain cells.

  7. lorn says

    Ibis3, These verbal jackboots were made for walking says @ #1:
    Generally, assuming any units are available, and subject to prioritization, once you call 911 the 911 operator is required to send someone out if they can identify a location to send them to.

    In part, this has to do with liability. Imagine a crackpot call getting ignored, and then imagine something really bad happens and the person who called, or was injured, sues the local authorities in charge of the emergency services that were not dispatched. It also has to do with people with mental issues or misplaced fear of bothering the authorities or having to pay for emergency services.

    People suffering strokes can sometimes feel a strong but inchoate sense that something is very wrong but, because their brain, the organ responsible for registering what this problem may be is under attack, they can’t tell you what is wrong. So they call 911 but can’t tell the operator what the issue is and may end up apologizing and conclude that they really didn’t mean to call 911. So, in many districts if they call, the first or fiftieth time, the ambulance rolls.

    Other times people just don’t want to bother authorities. One case related to me was of an elderly woman who saw her back yard on fire, called but then told the operator it really wasn’t a big enough fire for them to bother with and she thought she could put it out herself. When the fire department arrived she was tossing water from a bucket onto a fire leaping twenty feet in the air. The fire department took one look and called a second alarm. The lady kept telling the firemen she didn’t want to bother anyone or be any trouble.

    Some 911 callers change their mind because they are afraid they will be charged for the services.

    I’ve lived long enough in six different districts to find out how their 911 systems worked and all of them had a policy that if you called, they came. If you tell them not to come, they still come. If you hang up, and they can identify the location, they send someone out to check.

  8. Dunc says

    It’s also worth remembering that the Mercator projection makes Africa look quite a bit smaller than it actually is.

  9. Sleeper (from Sci-Blogs) says

    Dunc #10 Why is that worth remembering? Where do you see Mercator projections these days?

  10. Dunc says

    Sleeper #11: pretty much everywhere, as far as I know . Or are you going for some obscure map geekery of the “it’s not really, technically a Mercator, it’s some other cylindrical projection with similar distortions” sort that I’m unaware of?

  11. Sleeper (from Sci-Blogs) says

    dunc #12 I’m going to walk that back. Having done a quick Google for map wall charts I see there are any number of cheap (and unlabelled as such) Mercators available. I assume because out of copyright world maps tend to be Mercators.

    My impression was that the Mercator projection had fallen out of favour precisely because of the nature of it’s distortion. You certainly won’t find it used in most modern Atlases.

  12. Dunc says

    Sleeper #13: I’ll bet that you’ll still find a lot of Mercators in schools, too. There’s plenty of places making do with out-of-date textbooks.


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