This is not the Ebola piece I expected to write, when asked. Originally, I had other ideas for an insightful, level-headed exposition on the threats of irrational fear bred by ignorance, racism, and selfishness. Yet, the stunning speed of American's flirtations with near tyranny and inhumanity around the pandemic startled even me, someone who spent twenty years as a journalist -- much in Africa, though not in the struggling countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea. Now, as the co-founder of an international non-profit, focused on ending sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, I struggle mightily watching the disease sow immeasurable loss in the lives of distant, too-often nameless faces in waves of news dispatches from the African continent. It feels almost impossible to keep up with the shifting guidelines, policy directives and public sentiments about the disease, its actual capability to do harm here.
And, while I honor the commitment of medical personnel from this country and others in the West in wanting to go and help offer relief, I reserve calling them "heroes," preferring to offer that distinction to the undermanned, poorly resourced African women and men who've persevered in the darkness of the world's inattention since the crisis began in December of last year. Now more than ever, I remain awed by them as increasingly the general public and elected officials in this country, and a handful of others make it about “us.”
Ten thousand souls have perished since it began, according to the World Health Organization. How many could have been saved if we'd done something before Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died in a Texas hospital on October 8? Believe me, I know it's not helpful to feel anger in this moment. Rather, that emotion in particular is one to be felt fully once this disease's spread has been stopped, but I can only feel rage and shame right now. Toward my fellow Americans, toward the friends and acquaintances in my life who continue to worry about their own risk -- no matter how often the chorus emphasizing the low possibility of contraction is sung by expert public health officials, doctors and aid organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres.
More than anyone else, though, I feel the most disgust with myself. I am not a trained medical worker, public health expert in epidemiology, or logistician, to name a few critical professions which are most in demand. Nor have I been a working journalist for almost five years. Still, and God help me, I wish I could go, go somewhere in that tragedy burdened West African region to do something, ANYTHING. To be sure, there are scores of journalists and documentarians doing phenomenal reporting, capturing essential images and personal truths of caregivers on the frontlines, as well as civilians disappearing into what seems like an abyss created by the disease. Even before Ebola reached America's shores, I had been quietly, almost secretly riveted by the degree of human devastation, almost as much as the lack of a meaningful response from the larger international community.
What CAN I do? The easy answers which scores of advocates, concerned celebrities, and responsible politicians have recommended to average citizens is to support organizations supplying direct aid and resources to local personnel working to stifle the disease's impact and spread, having informed conversations with peers and colleagues to mitigate unfounded fears and misinformation, or applying pressure on government when and where necessary to foster increased, appropriate responses to the possibility of more infected people within American communities. It's not enough, though, for me. There's a pull I can't explain. To record the story of every person in the bullseye I can, to hold the hands of the dying and remind them they will never stop being my sister, my brother despite Ebola stripping away their physical connections to humanity. A calling to honor and bear direct witness to the personal and communal tragedies being born every hour on the ground in West Africa, because the truth of the matter is that when this pandemic does end -- and as history has borne out over centuries it eventually will -- we will try to forget it ever happened, along with our culpability in the injustices born on those forcibly quarantined for offering aid, the civilians barred from entering certain countries because of where they’re from, and our disinterest in stopping its spread until it entered our door.
I speak to friends and colleagues from the three countries bearing the greatest weight of the disease, and as I hear the anguish in their voices trembling out of worry, anguish and helplessness for countrywomen and men lost -- or soon to be -- I close my eyes and envision Rwanda after the genocide, or the chaos of Syria, or South Asia after the 2004 tsunami, or South Korean adolescents on a doomed sinking ferry, or Darfur in the late '90s and early 2000's, or the U.S. Gulf Coast in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, or...
Ebola is all of them, and more. It is the reminder that we do not live in isolation from each other regardless of where we may exist in the world, and the extreme of varying conditions under which we can live. It is the mirror into which we most despise to gaze because it reflects back those qualities of pettiness, cruelty and inhumanity we loathe to recognize, along with our greatest capacities for generosity, kindness, and love.
In recent months, I have been reading, and re-reading the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus' seminal parable of suffering and communal responsibility, The Plague, solely inspired by this most recent episode of Ebola. In the relatively slim novel, a small port Algerian city gradually falls prey to the bubonic plague, and out of desperation is closed off from the rest of the world. Initially in denial about the disease, the town's citizens are selfish and self-centered as their quarantine progresses. Their pain over lost loved ones and restricted freedom(s) is taken to be unique from suffering in the world in general. When the quarantine ends, relief compels people to transform their thinking towards recognizing that the disease which imprisoned them was not theirs alone to bear, but everyone's. To my soul, I pray that soon those of us observing Ebola's ravages from a distance, along with those clenched within its grasp recognize the burdens we share -- as did the imperiled citizens in Camus' novel -- along with the necessity to embrace and stand with each other against it, unwaveringly.
This post is part of a special series produced by The Huffington Post in recognition of the threats posed by Ebola, particularly to West Africa. To see all the posts in the series, read here.