The Ebola Epidemic: Someone Else’s Problem or a Call for Global Compassion?

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Ebola is here! Despite repeated warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the epidemic in West African countries required an international response in order to halt its spread, the United Nations and the United States have been slow to react to the growing health crisis. And now, with one man dead in Dallas, Texas, after contracting the disease and two healthcare workers infected, Ebola has reached the United States. Three healthcare workers in Germany have also suffered from the disease, as well as a Spanish nurse. When the nurse’s dog was euthanized over concern about the canine’s ability to spread the Ebola virus, there was an outcry across the globe.

Compared to the shock at one dog’s death, however, there has been little empathy directed toward the thousands of human lives that have been lost to Ebola. Most recent estimates from the WHO state that over 7,000 people in West Africa have contracted the disease, and there could be as many as 20,000 cases by November. Over 4,000 children in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have been orphaned after their parents have died. Yet the media has not fixated nearly so much on these tragedies as it has on the impact that Ebola has had on Europeans and Americans. Ebola’s arrival in the United States and Europe is certainly a serious cause for concern. However, in order to effectively combat the dispersion of the virus, Western nations will need to not only mobilize healthcare workers in their own countries but also dramatically increase the aid they’re offering to West Africa.

Unfortunately, reactions to Ebola have all too often been based upon fear-mongering and even outright racism. In a September 15 interview with Public Radio International, Dr. Joia Mukherjee of Harvard Medical School stated that much of the disinterest in Ebola stemmed from the disregard of affluent whites to the suffering of people of color in countries that are not large contributors to the global economy. For instance, she mentioned that there had been little incentive for for-profit healthcare systems, like that of the United States, to invest in more effective treatments and vaccines for Ebola because those who are most likely to contract the disease are also the least likely to be able to pay for medical care.

Responses of some politicians to the threat of Ebola seem to reinforce Mukherjee’s claims that racism is responsible for the United States’ apathy to the plight of people suffering in West Africa. More Americans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), are calling for the U.S. to impose an air travel ban on planes from the effected region. However, experts warn that air travel bans will only increase the epidemic, as Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria will experience commercial and economic hardship, further stretching their already thin financial resources. Flight bans would also force people to find other means of crossing national boarders, making infected individuals more difficult to track. Other legislators, like Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) and Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) have used the fear surrounding the spread of Ebola to enhance their own anti-immigration policies aimed at children crossing the U.S. border through Mexico.

Contrary to the xenophobic responses of some politicians, Ebola is not a problem that will be solved simply by closing ourselves off from the rest of the world. In a global society and economy, when travel from one country to another is just a matter of hours, we have a responsibility to help those in need around the world. Fighting the Ebola virus at its source is also the most effective way to curb the epidemic because it ensures that fewer individuals who have been infected will spread the disease to other countries. The best response to Ebola—the most humanist response—is not fear or racism but reason and compassion.