Are “Sinners” Spreading the Ebola Virus?

It seems you can’t turn on a television, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper without receiving regular updates about the ever-increasing death toll in West Africa from the Ebola virus. With its dramatic symptoms, which range from flu-like fevers and aches to internal bleeding, the disease seems to have infected the imaginations of people across the globe. More immediately, it has also generated a healthcare crisis in communities across Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria.

In response to the growing need for care, medical experts, both local and international, have heroically put themselves at risk to treat those stricken with the virus in clinics that aren’t always well equipped to isolate people who’ve become infected. Even with limited resources, however, medical professionals have managed to bring the fatality rate of the virus down from 90 to 60 percent. This rate is still high, but it does demonstrate the positive effects that medical science and ingenuity have in treating this distressing disease, even in inadequate conditions.

Unfortunately, not everyone has employed the same rational approach to dealing with the Ebola outbreak. Last week, the Liberian Council of Churches announced that the virus was punishment from God for sins such as homosexuality, and that individuals should fast and pray for forgiveness in order to combat the spread of the disease. This measure was endorsed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who encouraged Liberian citizens to stay home and observe a three-day fast that would, supposedly, invoke God’s mercy. Similar sentiments were expressed with more vitriol by American religious right-wing radio personality Rick Wiles, who characterized Ebola as a plague sent from God to wipe out atheists and individuals in the LGBTQ community, among other so-called “sinners.”

Not only are these ideas simply wrong, they are also dangerous. By presenting Ebola as a form of divine retribution, the Liberian Council of Churches and people like Wiles scapegoat already vulnerable individuals in the atheist and the LGBTQ communities in Western Africa, who may be denied civil rights and face persecution in some countries purely for being who they are. They also increase the stigma surrounding the disease, causing many people who begin showing symptoms to remain at home, where they might pass the illness on to their family and friends, instead of seeking treatment.

Categorizing Ebola as an unearthly force sent from God also increases the misinformation already surrounding the disease, making the work that doctors and nurses are doing to halt its spread even more difficult. People who don’t understand how Ebola is transmitted may believe that aid workers are actually bringing the illness to their communities. Their confusion, though perhaps initially baffling, is understandable. Without proper information, someone could easily associate medical personnel with Ebola and the deaths that follow it and come to believe that the doctors were actually the cause of the disease and death. Still others think that Ebola is not a natural malady but a magical one that can only be cured by traditional herbalists or other healers. Explanations of Ebola from religious authorities and government officials that also classify the disease as godly retribution reinforce these views and prevent people from getting medical assistance.

Accurate information, not supernatural scare tactics and scapegoating, is necessary to stop the spread of Ebola. A humanistic focus on science, not prayers and fasting, has already made some headway in combatting the disease, though a widely available vaccine or cure is still a long way off. Even if more effective treatments were developed, getting them to people in need could prove difficult. Government corruption makes access to education, transportation, and medical care nearly impossible for many people, and these are exactly what people in West Africa need to understand Ebola, halt the spread of the disease, and treat individuals who are infected. Corruption also breeds a (usually well-founded) mistrust of the government, which is further promoting the spread of the disease. In Sierra Leone, where the government is attempting to encourage individuals with symptoms of Ebola to seek medical attention, people are understandably skeptical. As this article in The Economist asks rhetorically, “Why should people believe a government that lies about so many other things when it tells them they will die if they don’t go to a hospital?”

Humanism, unlike superstition and fundamentalist religion, seeks information from the natural world and scientific inquiry. Relying on those approaches is going to resolve the Ebola crisis much more effectively than blaming already stigmatized groups such as atheists and LGBTQ individuals. But humanists should also be willing to look at the larger political and social climate in West Africa and realize its role in this tragic situation. Combatting Ebola isn’t just about developing better treatments for the virus, though that is certainly of the utmost importance. Tackling Ebola also means having compassion for the individuals whose lives are impacted by this disease and working with them to end government corruption and improve access to education and quality healthcare. The Ebola outbreak will hopefully abate, but misinformation and corruption are ultimately far more long-lasting and far more deadly than any virus.