The past few weeks have seen a sudden decline in Ebola-related news. The few cases of the disease currently on US soil have lost the media’s attention, but on the other side of the Atlantic, the epidemic rages on beyond the gaze of American viewership. A reflection on the waxing and waning of America’s brief obsession with Ebola calls into question whether the public has really come to understand its true magnitude. It’s too early to lapse into forgetfulness: It’s high time for US disease-control policy to turn away from its sheltered domestic perspective and address the truly international challenges posed by the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Last Monday at the Yale Law School, three experts on global health spoke about just that. Stationed in a lecture hall before a group of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty, they conducted a one-hour panel titled “The Morality of Fear: The US Response to Ebola.” First to speak was Gregg Gonsalves, Co-Director of the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership. In his opening remarks, he explained that the current presence of Ebola in the United States is an extremely low-risk situation. He noted a widespread trend of overreaction, criticizing the governors of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey for approving 21-day quarantines of travelers returning from West Africa. Citing the fact that only those who show symptoms are contagious, Gonsalves termed these quarantines “scientifically unjustifiable…and a deprivation of people’s liberty.” Most importantly, Gonsalves diagnosed a misdirection of American attention: “We’ve had two deaths from Ebola in the United States. Meanwhile, thousands have died in West Africa. It’s obscene [that] we’re panicking, hiding under our beds about something that will never really affect most people in this country.” So the real focus of disease-control and media coverage should be the plight of countries like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where the epidemic is tearing families and communities apart.

The second speaker of the night, Reverend Philip S. Blamo, Vice President of the Liberian Community Association of Connecticut, discussed the state of the crisis in his native country. In an impassioned speech, he described Ebola’s devastating effect on Liberian society, focusing on not only obstacles to disease-control but also challenges to Liberian culture and identity. Blamo explained, “Traditionally, Africans are people who are together. They eat together, they socialize together, they do almost everything together. So with the outbreak of Ebola, they were separated…It was something that is very hard for people to accept. That’s one of the reasons why people are dying.” A dilemma has emerged: adherence to traditional ways has facilitated the transmission of the disease, so Liberians must abandon their familiar ways of life if they hope to stay alive. Blamo summarized the predicament literally and figuratively: “They’re not shaking hands anymore.”

He also called upon his audience to view aid to Liberia as an American responsibility. “[Liberia’s] ties with the US are so strong,” he said, citing the long history of friendship between the two countries. He cautioned against apathy: “One of biggest reforms is to educate…[We need] to be involved, not to be lazy and say, ‘Well, this is only happening to Africans, and we’re so sophisticated [in disease-control technology] that this cannot happen to us.’ No. We have thousands of US troops there, in Liberia working right now.” Lastly, Blamo used a personal anecdote to address the problem of the debilitating stigma surrounding Ebola. He recounted an incident in which he introduced himself as a West African, causing much discomfort to another individual because of the growing association of the deadly disease with that region. This attachment of Ebola to national identity, Reverend Blamo argued, is demoralizing and unreasonable: “The disease is not something that [means] we’re bad. The disease is not something that Africans manufactured. It’s something that happened.”

The difficulty of implementing American aid in the context of this socially disrupted and stigmatized environment was the focus of Ryan Boyko, a PhD candidate at the Yale School of Public Health and the final speaker on the panel. Boyko experienced firsthand the sentiments of stricken Liberian communities: in September, when President Obama announced that US troops would provide aid to Liberia, he noticed that “there was still a lot of apprehension [in Liberia], but also a ray of hope.” But when Thomas Duncan became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the US, “[Liberians] were prescient enough to know that once this had happened, America was going to turn its focus inwards and in unproductive ways.” The ensuing hysteria of the American media was damaging in multiple ways: first, it reinforced the social stigma in West Africa. Second, “Yale and other universities have made it nearly impossible for people to go—or at least much more difficult. Of course Yale and other universities have a lot of clinicians…who may be particularly well-suited for jobs there…who have a much harder time going because of university policy.” And lastly, Ebola became a heavily politicized issue, adopted by American governors in their rhetoric in the weeks before elections.

The obstacles are immense, but the panelists believed that all the resources for ending this current epidemic are already available to the United States and other partners in global health. Gonsalves likened it to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, insisting, “This is not something new…We have to think about ways to avoid having history repeat.” Blamo cited progress in convincing Liberians to alter their traditional ways, thanks to better education about how Ebola is spread. And Boyko was optimistic about curbing media sensationalism and depoliticizing the disease. If the US shifts away from internal fear-mongering and toward open, outward aid, it may not be that long until Liberians are shaking hands again.

 

 

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