Back in September, I read about mobs of citizens in Guinea assaulting healthcare workers and educators who were working to stop the spread of Ebola, and I found myself pitying their ignorance and lack of education. Why else would they attack those who are just trying to help? Over the past several weeks, however, I’ve been seeing American citizens attack health workers and public health officials who are also working to stop the spread of Ebola. This time, many of the people who are doing the attacking are highly educated, well informed individuals. We all have the same goal: to eradicate this horrible disease. How is it that we are so blind to the fact that we are all on the same side?
No one in the United States who wasn’t coming from West Africa or directly treating someone from West Africa has contracted the disease — and this includes close family and friends of the sick. Scientific facts, however, can only go so far in reassuring the public, and the point is not to invalidate people’s fear and anger. It is perfectly understandable to be fearful for the safety of oneself and one’s loved ones, and I would argue that we should be angry at the continued spread of the disease. That said, we cannot afford to take out our fear and anger on the courageous men and women who are risking their lives and livelihoods to fight this disease, especially when they are following the protocols put out by expert organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders and CDC. We also cannot take out our anger and fear on the public health officials who are hoping to dissuade fears and protect citizens by quarantining those who are at risk of carrying the disease.
Blaming people such as Dr. Craig Spencer or the officials at the Newark airport is not going to keep us safe. As infectious as the Ebola virus is, the true contagion in West Africa is the fear and hopelessness born out of a long history of poverty, injustice and mistrust in any system that says it’s there to help. If we are to be angry, we should be angry at the fact that even before the Ebola outbreak, Liberia was estimated to have as few as 50 doctors responsible for the country’s entire population of 4.4 million. If we are to be angry, we should be angry that even with such a crippling pandemic, more continue to die of malaria in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone than from Ebola. With already-weakened health systems collapsing and the sick afraid to go to the hospital, more and more people are dying from diseases we already know how to treat. If we are to be angry, we need to direct our anger at problems, not at people. Then comes the hard part: transcending that anger into compassion.
As a member of what has been dubbed Generation “Me,” I am ashamed of the selfishness of many of my elders, who are only adding to the fear and confusion rather than supporting those who are out there fighting the pandemic. The only way we are going to truly protect ourselves from this disease in the United States is if we beat it in West Africa. Punishing healthcare workers and banning flights will only cause the pandemic to spiral further out of control, not to mention forgo the “freedom and justice for all” that we as a country pledge.
At the same time, there’s a fine line between being calm and being apathetic. As the fear and hype eventually pass here in the United States, we cannot forget that the battle rages on in Liberia and Sierra Leone and will continue to rage as long as we fail to address the inequities that lie at its source. So whether you support our country’s involvement in foreign affairs or not, I urge all of you to support our involvement in this one. Here is a war in which we can fight against death, not cause it. But to do so, we cannot let our fear and anger turn to hate — or worse, indifference.
More information on the HEAL Initiative and its involvement in the Ebola response effort can be found at healinitiative.org.
Brett Lewis graduated in 2014 from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in public health and a minor in anthropology. Now a research assistant at UCSF, she is helping launch the HEAL Initiative, a global health equity fellowship that aims to build a healthcare workforce for low-resource settings both here in the United States and in countries such as Liberia.