THE BLOG
10/06/2014 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ebola, Malaria and Our Empathy Deficit

"Epidemics on the other side of the world are a threat to us all. No epidemic is just local." -Peter Piot, Director, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Ebola was most fervently declared a global epidemic the moment it touched down in Dallas, Texas. It's a scary word with a scary history and with the media pulsing it in our faces 24-hours-a-day our fear continues to intensify. And yet here's the spread breakdown according to Dan Diamond over at Forbes:
  • Liberia Deaths: 1830
  • Guinea Deaths: 648
  • Sierra Leone Deaths: 605
  • Nigeria Deaths: 8
  • United States Deaths: 0
Sure, the fear isn't so much of the present but of the "what if" and of the "potential" for mass (Western) casualties. So USAID and the DOD and a host of other US-based organizations are strapping up and wading through the worst Ebola-stricken areas for the noble sake of ending its devastating impact on humanity. Or is it for the sake of protecting ourselves? Does intent even matter? How much weight do the Tweets below (from a global health researcher and a malaria specialist, respectively) hold?

Without diving too much into history, this is essentially how our modern efforts to eradicate malaria began. Western researchers, many of whom wanted to exploit African countries in one way or another, kept getting sick and even dying from malaria. In order to be exploitative, they had to first be healthy. So began some of our most comprehensive anti-malaria campaigns. We learned much about the disease and this knowledge has helped those most afflicted, but the intention was clear: to look out for No 1.

Professor John Farley, author of Bilharzia, spoke bluntly of this:

"Tropical medicine from 1898 to the 1970s was fundamentally imperialistic in its basic assumptions, its methods, its goals, and its priorities."

Are we becoming increasingly aware of, as Peter Piot's quote above emphasizes, our global interconnectedness? Philosopher Roman Krznaric seems to think so, yet he also sees the modern forces at play in our age of...

"...hyper-individualism, where a barrage of free-market thinking, advertising propaganda and simplistic self-help is telling us we should busy ourselves with looking after No 1."

His answer?

"Empathy is the antidote we need to create a world where we embrace a philosophy of 'You are, therefore I am.'"

Karen M. Masterson, author of the forthcoming The Malaria Project, recently wrote a brilliant piece for TIME titled Plagues on the Poor: What Ebola Can Learn From Malaria, in which she states that the Ebola outbreak has taught us about how we desperately need "...a redistribution of global health funding that places a much higher priority on infrastructure, not new medications." She concludes her essay with:

"Redirect global health programming to build health care infrastructure for disease prevention -- not just capacity for drug delivery -- and wealthy countries will get more for the money. They will also target all at once HIV, TB, malaria, the neglected diseases, Ebola, and the next scary infectious disease to emerge from the caves."

Point taken. But I'd argue that a key reason why we don't focus our attention on infrastructure is because we lack empathy for the people in the places where these diseases are worst. Drugs are a quick way to allow us -- No.1 -- to make money and be safe for our short-term excursions. Building a true health care infrastructure for disease prevention means we would have to listen compassionately to the needs of the communities where we as foreigners are entering into, and the root of this is plain and simple: caring. We would have to authentically and deeply care. Intent doesn't always matter, but in this case it does. Our lack of empathic intent is one key reason why focusing on health care infrastructure (even within our own country) hasn't been a priority.

A revolution in the infrastructure of our mind precedes the building of any physical infrastructure. Perhaps it's time to heed Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh's mantra:

"We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness."

Cameron Conaway is the author of Malaria, Poems (Michigan State University Press, 2014).

--Feature Photo: Abbas Dulleh, AP