Ebola should evoke our compassion, not fear

Marney Rich Keenan
  • Thousands are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.
  • Parents find out about their kids by checking a handwritten sign titled “Expired Patients List.”
  • If we can raise millions with ice water, shouldn’t we be fundraising the hell out of a cure?

Last week, I was getting a prescription filled alongside a woman waiting to have a flu shot when our polite conversation inadvertently veered toward Ebola.

At the dog park where I take Gordie most every morning, fellow dog walkers have definite opinions on whether to institute travel restrictions to and from West Africa, where the deadly outbreak has claimed over 3,000 lives and counting.

And when news came on Wednesday morning that Thomas Eric Duncan, the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S., had died in a Dallas hospital, I questioned my daughter once again. Where was her friend Annie stationed for a year of volunteer service? “She’s in Georgetown, Guyana, Mom. SOUTH AMERICA,” the text read. “Not Africa.”

My deplorable geography acumen not withstanding, when a strange sounding, highly fatal virus that causes horror-movie-like bleeding from the eyes, nose and ears (and whose origins stem from bats, no less) becomes part of the daily lexicon, you have to wonder: is our ever-increasing concern merited? And are we concerned about the right things?

My flu shot lady had more than a pedestrian reason to be armed against infection. During a routine flight, she told me, she’d contracted MRSA. That staph infection had since led to no less than three autoimmune diseases. With her case history, she said she wasn’t trusting any official reports intended to decrease fear over Ebola. I could hardly blame her.

When I left, I was reminded of those surreal few weeks in the aftermath of 9/11. I remember Matt Lauer trying on a gas mask that made him look like a giant grasshopper. In retrospect, it seems absurd. And yet, only people who didn’t live through those unreal events would think us alarmists. After all, on that horrible, horrible day, the sky really was falling and there were people in it.

To be sure, this is not a threat that can even be compared to 9/11. But the sight of Hazmat suits is still unmooring, as is news of Duncan’s death, the second patient in the U.S. now being treated in a Nebraska hospital, and the Spanish nursing assistant who, this week, became the first case of Ebola to be transmitted outside of West Africa. (They’ve had to euthanize her dog, for God’s sake).

In fact, a Pew poll out Monday — and this is before Duncan died — found 11 percent of Americans were “very worried” that they or a family member will be exposed to Ebola, while 21 percent are somewhat worried.

But to buy into fear mongering and hype, to be drawn to some news outlets’ affinity for “worst-case scenarios,” not only plays havoc with our own sense of well-being, it also sidelines what we really should be thinking about. And that is: what we can do to help alleviate the incredible suffering.

If we can raise millions in days via social media by pouring buckets of ice water over our heads, shouldn’t we be fundraising the hell out of our angst-ridden selves?

Just because we have the wherewithal, the science and the money to “stop the disease in its tracks” as CDC officials are so bent on assuring us, it does not mean we should simply breathe a sigh of relief and go back to our Facebook pages and selfies, sure to get good night’s sleep.

Consider this: in Monrovia, Liberia, fearful parents find out if their kids have died from Ebola by fingering a handwritten sign titled “Expired Patients List.”

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, wrote in the Huffington Post recently: “The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income countries. … Now thousands of people in these (other) countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.”

That’s the kind of hype we should be buying into. There’s loads of worthy organizations out there that need our money: Unicef, Save the Children, World Vision, UN Foundations Ebola Response Fund. We may not be staring at an “Expired Patient’s List,” but we all go to sleep under the moon.