The Crisis of Ebola: Hope and Fear

Catholic Relief Services is educating people about the spread of Ebola. This photo is from such efforts in Liberia. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Poidatz, Catholic Relief Services 2014.
Catholic Relief Services is educating people about the spread of Ebola. This photo is from such efforts in Liberia. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Poidatz, Catholic Relief Services 2014.
I was between meetings when I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I pulled it out, glanced at the notification. It was from The New York Times. “Dallas Ebola Patient Dies,” it read.

Before that moment, I had unceremoniously rolled my eyes at the hysterics across the blogosphere and social media in response to the Ebola outbreak. At times, it felt as though we were auditioning for roles on The Walking Dead rather than trying to deal with a growing problem realistically. And we seemed to be drowning in ignorance, conspiracy theorizing and panic, rather than rising to the facts of the situation. This is a serious deadly disease, yes, but we shouldn’t be losing our senses.

Yet, receiving the notification that day affected me. It left a mark. It forced me to think. It forced me to act.

It’s our duty as an international community — not to mention, as fellow human beings created in the image and likeness of God — to not just stand by and watch. Thousands of people are dying, and we struggle simply to think of what avenues are open to us through which we can affect change. I can’t offer answers, but I can offer reflections.

#1 Education is key — and not just for those in Africa.

If you’ve been following this outbreak closely, you’ll know that this isn’t an episode of The Walking Dead. There are very real, concrete causes and effects in place on the ground in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone which are contributing to the spread of the virus. For example:

  • Culture plays a vital role, both in how the disease is viewed and in how it is handled. There is, at times, distrust on the part of African populations of the foreign white aid workers in their communities, and of the insights of those who come from distant lands. (A bit of interior searching may reveal each of us would have similar sentiments should we find the shoe on the other foot.) Moreover, traditional burial rituals frequently involve touching the body of the deceased — an easy way for the disease to spread.
  • Location — outbreaks of Ebola are not terribly uncommon, but in most cases they start and end in remote villages. This one has occurred in big cities, allowing the disease to spread quickly.
  • Healthcare infrastructure is, unfortunately, severely lacking in the affected countries. So as the disease spreads quickly in crowded cities, there is no healthcare system in place to halt it. Additionally, due to traditional healthcare practices, many infected individuals look to native healers for cures, rather than reporting to local hospitals.

All this to say that education is important. In fact, in addition to strengthening healthcare, one of the most valuable roles played by Church partners and volunteers on the ground is going door to door to provide local communities with the facts of Ebola.

Educating ourselves and staying apprised of developments goes a long way in creating an environment of constructive, calm thinking among our friends and family. A few quick facts easily calm the panic (in fact, watch this report from Shepard Smith and put your mind at ease):

  • The disease can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of a person who is displaying symptoms of the disease. In other words, fear is more contagious — and in most cases, more harmful — than Ebola.
  • Symptoms appear 8 to 10 days after the disease has been contracted, which explains why Thomas Eric Duncan, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and died October 8 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, entered the United States without showing any signs of the virus.
  • To put things in perspective, outside of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — arguably, ground zero of the outbreak — there have been well under 50 confirmed cases of Ebola. Compare that to the 52,000 Americans who died from the flu and pneumonia last year. (Did you get your flu shot yet? And don’t forget to wash your hands.)

Why are the facts important for us to remember? Because,

#2 Fearmongering and conspiracy theorizing get us nowhere fast.

“The virus is now airborne.” “The government knows more than they’re telling us.” “They’re going to close the borders — and not a moment too soon.” These are just a few of the fearmongering lines many of us have heard.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: This is a scary thing we’re facing and we are not in control of it. But let’s continue with our honesty. Rumors and half-truths only spread fear, distrust and panic. While we must never stop pressing for the truth, we do at some point have to surrender control and accept those things we do not know or understand. For now, I’m going to stick with the facts (see above).

That’s something worth bringing to …

#3 Prayer.

Yes — pray for those who are sick, living in fear, and courageously working to end this crisis. But also bring to prayer your own fears, concerns and hesitations. I for one am.

I think we would all do well to ask ourselves why it’s suddenly so terrifying and terrible now that Ebola has spread to the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany. People in these countries have died, yes, but many more have died in Africa. Perhaps there is some interior searching that must be done as we continue to grapple with what it means to profess that all of us have been made in the image and likeness of God.

In the meantime, let us remember that Ebola is not an evil export from a backward continent. It’s a global disaster in which we all have a stake.

And suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)