Crisis often generates a tension between fear and compassion. Much of the reaction to Ebola in the United States last year was evidence of fear trumping compassion. We saw public health policy being guided by fear rather than by the best available science. We observed sufferers of Ebola — and even healthy individuals who simply volunteered to fight the virus — being treated not like victims or heroes but criminals and threats to the public. These attitudes broke my heart, not just for the casualties of this public attitude but also for the public itself.
When we discriminate against those for whom we ought to have compassion, we lose our sense of empathy. We become callous, and our humanity is eroded. We too quickly give up on caring for people with a protracted need for help, leaving the defenseless to fend for themselves.
My wife, Amber, and I, along with our two children, recently returned to Liberia — where I contracted Ebola one year ago — to visit friends and colleagues. We had the opportunity to say thank you and to express our deep gratitude to the many who cared for me in my illness, who fasted and prayed for me in their churches and who took action in official capacities to allow a patient sick with Ebola to be evacuated across the Atlantic Ocean. Though too short, it was a meaningful reunion. Coming back to the place we called home for a little less than a year brought many memories: familiar faces, familiar scenery, the memorable finger-snap handshake common across that part of the world. But there were also unfamiliar experiences: chlorinated hand-washing stations outside every business, church and public building; fewer embraces than one might have expected for such a joyful reunion; the missing faces of those who fell prey to the savage predator of Ebola.
Despite a few imported cases of the disease (like my own) and a couple of cases diagnosed here (like those of the heroic nurses in Dallas) in 2014, Ebola seems to have already been relegated to the history books in the United States. But as we approach the one-year anniversary of Ebola “coming to America” (we often forget that it has been present in research laboratories around the country for decades), it seems important to remind the world that the outbreak is not over in West Africa, where its effects continue to be far-reaching.
Guinea and Sierra Leone continue to see 20 to 30 new Ebola cases each week. And Liberia, declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization on May 9, is once again fighting the virus within its borders. All told, there have been more than 27,600 cases in West Africa, with more than 11,200 people losing their lives, including more than 500 health workers. Though staggering, these numbers hardly reflect the total impact of Ebola on West Africa. Thousands more have died from malaria, typhoid, complications of childbirth and other conditions that have gone untreated due to the breakdown of the health systems of the three most heavily affected countries.
Even if this epidemic continues, it is unlikely to return to the magnitude it reached last summer, with hundreds of new cases appearing each week. But what is probable is the destabilization of the region. A constantly present, endemic threat such as Ebola can prevent the rebuilding of resilient health systems in affected countries. And without well-functioning health systems, society becomes like a stool with a missing leg. It may appear to stand, but under the slightest pressure it will topple.
And so we in the United States have a decision to make. We must decide what our response will be to this ongoing tragedy on the other side of the world. Will we allow fear to paralyze us, leaving the vulnerable to suffer alone? Will we settle into a sense of indifference, caring not what will come of our neighbors in need? Or will compassion win out, moving us to action — not simply for self-preservation and the prevention of global pandemics, but for the good of humanity, for the dignity of mankind and for the well-being of others?
As we as a global community seek to learn the lessons of this epidemic, let us not fail to recognize and extinguish the ongoing threat. Let us choose compassion over fear or apathy.
Kent Brantly is a doctor with the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. He is the author, with his wife, Amber, of the book “Called for Life” about his experience with Ebola.