Imagine you hear a newborn baby crying. The mother has died, leaving the baby alone and shaking as she cries. Would you pick the baby up?
Now what if that baby might have Ebola and you have no protective gear? What do you do then?
It is a horrific question, but one which is shockingly real in West Africa. (Read this shocking story from the NY Times here to find out what happens far too often and from NPR here)
In this culture it is easy to imagine a world of medical solutions. We can comfort ourselves with the idea that we would call 911. We can imagine loving nurses in protective gear. And there would be an incubator to keep her warm, Formula to feed her. And maybe a happy ending.
But in the West African countries reeling from the Ebola crisis, these solutions most often don't exist. These are impoverished countries whose medical systems were struggling even before the crisis. For example before the Ebola crisis the Liberian Ministry of Health listed just 50 doctors working in public health facilities serving a population of 4.3 million".(according to the President of the World Bank)
How can we expect a country like this to respond to a crisis of this scale largely on their own? Yes, we have sent some help. But not nearly enough. And so we have left the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in an impossible situation. Every day families bring their sick loved ones to the hospitals only to be turned away at the gate because there are no resources to care for them. The Washington Post reports that as the epidemic rampages,there is increasing fear of providing maternal care for women in labor. So pregnant women, who might possibly have Ebola, are turned away at the gates, sometimes dying in childbirth. This leaves an orphaned newborn behind, and the question of what to do with a possibly infected baby.
And so imagine yourself in a place like this when you hear that newborn baby cry. With no one to call for help and no protective gear in sight, honestly, do you touch that baby? What if it was your grandchild? How could you not reach out a hand?
So how can we expect anything else from the people of West Africa? As long as we continue leave people stranded with an impossible choice, the epidemic will continue to spread. Because as long as medical care is unreachable and protective gear is unavailable, people will continue to offer their sick loved ones the only thing they can, a comforting hand and a place to die. No matter how much that puts them at risk of spreading the disease.
But there should be another option. We may not have a cure for Ebola but we definitely do have the resources to care for people much more safely. We could provide a massive response in these 3 hard-hit countries, with adequate protective gear, medical equipment, and trained professionals. Our government is capable of mounting massive wars, we are capable of this. And it would make a huge difference to the course this epidemic takes. But there is no will politically. And that will not change until the American public begins to demand it.
So how is it that we have fallen silent? Or worse, fallen into circular discussions about how much we are in danger here in the US. No matter what you think about grounding flights or closing our borders, these are only secondary measures and will never contain the epidemic on their own. The best way to make ourselves safe here is to end the epidemic there.
But the epidemic in Africa continues to spread. And we continue to remain largely uninvolved.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be human. I have full faith in the humanity of the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Without any other resources, and in the face of very real danger there are still people carrying a bleeding woman to the hospital or picking up an orphaned baby. They refuse to turn away.
The question is whether we ourselves will find the humanity to share our resources and help them do it more safely.