If you’ve kept up with the news or even with social media in the past week, it won’t surprise you to hear that five Americans have been diagnosed with Ebola at the time of this writing. As soon as the news broke on the first case, I myself received a panicked text from a friend: EBOLA HAS COME TO THE USA / IMMINENT PANDEMIC APOCALYPSE. She was joking, of course, but her awareness of the topic proves an interesting point. There was no mention of Ebola among my friends while it remained safely overseas. I consider myself moderately well informed, with a moderately well informed friend group. We’d heard of the epidemic on the news, but there was no sense of urgency until the virus hit the States. Unfortunately the international community seems to share our attitude, and the epidemic was not declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern until August 8, a full eight months after the first case was reported in Guinea in December.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 7,470 people infected with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone since the initial outbreak, with 3,431 deaths reported. It stands as the worst epidemic of Ebola on record, and in a Sept. 26 statement, the WHO said, “The Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times.”
So why is it that, at least among your average young Americans, Ebola was never mentioned until last week? With my own two ears, I heard my peers say that Ebola “isn’t an issue, because it’s not in America,” as though the death of a Guinean is somehow less devastating than the death of an American. On the day the first Ebola case in the States was confirmed, 50,000 tweets regarding the case were posted in a single hour as the issue suddenly hit home.
Is this what it takes for something to become an issue? For it to threaten our own way of life? A director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is quoted as saying, “The best way to protect Americans and the rest of the world is to stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa”—but where is the concern for protecting West Africans? Do we really hold ourselves so superior to people of third-world nations that their problems seem like a nonissue? Why does the illness of one American captivate our attentions while the death of 2,100 Liberians barely rattles us?
On Sept. 3, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, the largest NGO currently providing aid, spoke out against the UN member countries for their lack of assistance in West Africa. This statement came on the heels of a declaration by the WHO, which has received heavy criticism for its “slow and insufficient” response to the outbreak, which aimed to halt Ebola transmission within six to nine months. Since then, the UN Security Council declared the outbreak a “threat to international peace and security” and adopted a resolution urging all UN member countries to provide more resources and aid to West Africa.
International aid is coming, but very slow and very late. Obama has promised to deploy 3,000 troops within the month to build seventeen new treatment centers, although the CDC warns that there may not be enough medical personnel to staff the new facilities. The CDC itself currently has about 90 staff members on the ground in West Africa, the first of which arrived in August. In contrast, 10 CDC specialists were deployed to Dallas within days to deal with a single case on U.S. soil.
While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been broadcast and discussed on nearly every national news channel in the past few months, and it is certainly the responsibility of every individual to keep themself informed, it does strike me as dangerous that the topic did not make its way into casual conversation until it reached American soil. I shudder to think what this attitude bodes for other global issues like famine, clean water, and climate change. If the majority of us remain unperturbed until our own lives are threatened, what will be the fates of those with a far shorter distance to fall? If we want to start addressing these global issues effectively, we need to start seeing ourselves as one common humanity. The death of anybody due to Ebola should merit an equal amount of concern, no matter what country they reside in, and the rush to provide medical aid should be just as swift, no matter the existing conditions on the ground.