THE BLOG
11/04/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Is Ebola's 'Yuck' Factor Suppressing Americans' Compassion for Victims?

Americans have giant-sized hearts, so big that when disasters occur anywhere in the world, we -- not just our government, but individual citizens -- are among the first to respond. Our compassion and generosity have always extended well beyond our borders. After all, giving to those who are experiencing misfortune, wherever they are, is a defining quality of what it means to be American.

I have borne witness to the impact of that collective empathy and kindness. A year ago, Typhoon Haiyan wrought deadly devastation to the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and causing over $2 billion in damage. The media reports that chronicled people's desperate need of food, shelter and medicine triggered a visceral reaction here at home, and as a result, some $150 million in American disaster aid flowed to the Philippines within the first few months following the typhoon.

That response to a typhoon that occurred thousands of miles from our shores is in keeping with a tradition of compassion. In the same way, Americans answered the call to help the people of Haiti, East Africa and Southeast Asia in the wake of the earthquake, drought and tsunami that devastated those respective areas. These and other tragedies -- brought vividly to our living rooms by the media -- serve to remind us of our good fortune and engender a strong desire to help people who are suffering, people we don't know and will likely never meet.

Given this legacy of support when calamity strikes in the world, Americans' muted response to the Ebola crisis is especially notable and, frankly, of great concern. Governmental entities (including those from the United States) and non-governmental agencies alike are working tirelessly on the ground in West Africa to not only treat those who have contracted the disease, but also educate and protect those who have not been infected by it. This work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and elsewhere is vital and must continue to be a high priority, and yet, non-governmental agencies are reporting that their appeals to American donors to help fund these activities on the ground are going largely unanswered.

So the obvious question is, why? Why has the growing and vital need to help treat and contain Ebola elicited such a temperate response from within the United States, especially given our long history of compassion?

There are likely a number of factors. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the fact that the threat has reached our shores and made us afraid. What's more, the nature of how the disease is spread is so raw and indelicate. Ebola is not an airborne virus, but one passed on by touch -- through human fluids like blood, vomit and diarrhea -- not the topic of polite discourse, not suitable even for "everything is fair game" media coverage. The images the disease creates in people's minds are not pretty, and as a result, many people are recoiling from it, mentally being afraid to "touch" those who are suffering. As Americans are pulling back from Ebola, could their hearts be pulling back as well? Has our unease on the subject somehow displaced our compassion?

Whatever the reason, I worry that our focus on attacking the disease is not where it should be -at its source. Even if we subordinate our compassion for those thousands of miles away to ensure that our own health care system and medical workers are adequately prepared to deal with Ebola at home, we cannot overlook the necessity to wield a sustained assault against the disease where it will make the most difference in the long term. Put another way, if Ebola were a wildfire, we would not simply dig trenches around our homes and arm ourselves with hoses; we would attack it at its source to contain its spread.

At ChildFund International, we are seeing the effects of Ebola firsthand. Nine of our sponsored children have died from the disease, and UNICEF estimates that more than 3,700 children in the region, mostly in Liberia, have lost one or both parents to Ebola. In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, we recently opened our first Interim Care Center in collaboration with the government's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. It will serve as a safe place for children who have lost parents to Ebola to stay during the required 21-day quarantine period. In addition to housing and meals, the center provides psychosocial support to help children deal with their loss and confront the fears of what lies ahead. But it also is a place where children can reclaim some of their childhood, with games and toys and reading materials to help fill their days.

Ebola is a potentially deadly disease, and its visceral nature is serving to amplify fears about it at home and abroad. While we must put sufficient energy and knowledge into ensuring that Ebola's impact within the United States is contained, let us keep the necessary perspective on how to best address the threat of the disease from a global posture. Our best defense against Ebola is to fight it at the source, and that is a battle that Americans can join.