Politics of Poverty

Fearing fear itself: Why aid donors must act now to stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa

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Staff at Rokupa Government Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone have converted their operations from that of a normal hospital to that of an isolation center. To aid their efforts, Oxfam provided water tanks and pipes, a generator, and an incinerator for soiled clothing. Oxfam also replaced the windows, cleaned the well and installed a hand pump. Photo: Tommy Trenchard / Oxfam

Hint: It’s NOT about us in rich countries. It’s about stopping the disease at its source.

This piece originally appeared on The Hill’s Congress blog as “Stop Ebola in Africa.”

I cringed as Jon Stewart launched into an Ebola segment last week. Why would he look for laughs while people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are dying by the thousands? What’s so funny about everyday citizens, health care workers, soldiers, and aid workers putting their lives on the line to care for dying and suffering people in West Africa?

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But Stewart’s segment wasn’t trying to lighten up our response to Ebola. Instead he mocked the media for making the story all about the U.S. He lampooned our insatiable need for fear–what Roosevelt famously understood as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Over the weekend, I saw that fear in my own community: sideline soccer parents scrutinizing the Dallas response; the woman on the plane who offered to disinfect my seat after her own; the soccer commentator Arlo White wondering whether Yaya Toure, the best paid soccer player from the best paid soccer team in the world, had been screened for Ebola after he got off a private plane from West Africa. I heard political candidates on TV ahead of November’s election ratcheting up fear and calling for the closing of US borders and banning of flights.

We connect better when stories relate to our lives, and this is how secure societies will often respond to threats from beyond. We might have little room left for the unknown, but we should keep in mind that we have more of a chance of being struck by lightning than contracting Ebola in the U.S.

Yet, if we don’t connect better to what is actually happening now in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea those fears will prove justified if the virus can’t be contained. Rather than fearing fear itself, we need to focus our energies on the right things and in the right place to stop this epidemic in its tracks.

To date, we have seen about 9,000 cases in these three countries. We have about two months to curb the spread of the virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. To decrease the rate of transmission, the United Nations is working with aid groups to treat and isolate 70 percent of patients and provide safe burial for 70 percent of those who have died due the virus by December 1. That’s why Oxfam is working on prevention and to supply water, hygiene equipment and sanitation to Ebola treatment and community care centers in affected countries.

With enough military support, medics, and money, we can meet this deadline and help these countries get the disease under control. The United States is deploying up to 4,000 troops and medics to West Africa and has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to fight Ebola. Now, President Obama must persuade other donors to put themselves on the line. Secretary Kerry lauded Cuba their contributions to the fight against Ebola, but European donors need to do more. Italy and Spain have committed no troops yet, and the scale of French and German efforts are going to be too little too late, unless they do more and do it fast.

In the end, it may well be fear for our own safety that finally mobilizes an international response; there is certainly no way to vacuum seal our economic, political and security borders. Banning flights into the US will simply give us a false sense of security. Staged political debates about Ebola will distract us from the real task at hand and can actually make things worse.

Already, there is limited availability of commercial flights into and out of affected countries, and no direct flights between the U.S. and the Ebola-affected countries. Meanwhile, import, export, and transportation constraints that are making it more difficult to contain the outbreak, slowing the ability of international aid groups to get staff, equipment, and medical supplies to the people who need it most. A travel ban would only exacerbate these challenges.

In times of global crisis, time after time, the United States has put parochial fears aside, and served a greater good, saving millions, and making our world more secure, more just, more healthy. Ebola may soon be the defining crisis of this generation. We must not let ourselves or others be paralyzed by fear itself. The only way to prevent Ebola reaching other countries is to stop the epidemic at source, which means greater investment in the response. Focusing on closing borders and banning flights is nothing but a distraction. If we don’t act quickly, new people in West Africa will continue to contract Ebola every minute of every day, and that’s when it may be too late to help ourselves, too.

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