with Janee Woods
Ebola continues to ravage West African countries, causing almost 5,000 deaths due to a mortality rate approaching 50% and creating thousands of orphaned children, who are now isolated and shunned by their communities. With the news that Ebola has arrived on American shores, although resulting in only four confirmed cases and one death, there is a growing panic that we, too, will experience an epidemic of infection and death, even though there is very, very little to absolutely no factual basis for these fears. However, many people fail to realize that the average person is simply not at risk for infection even if they ride a subway car with an infected person, stand in line at Starbucks with an infected person or live in the same apartment building as an infected person. Unless someone is smearing your mucous membranes or open wounds with their Ebola-infected blood, vomit, urine, feces or saliva then you are probably in the clear.
So let’s stop worrying about the practically nonexistent possibility that America is on the brink of being decimated by Ebola. We are not at risk- not only because the odds of Ebola transmission in the general population are pretty low but also because as a country we are the global 1% so we have clean running water, regulated sewer and sanitation services, and modern medical technology, all of which are crucial for managing Ebola. Instead of being selfish in our concern for only ourselves, let’s choose to think critically and honestly about what the real concerns are here- namely, why poor Africans are suffering the burden of sickness most profoundly and why the rest of the world, especially the United States, has been slow to make a highly coordinated, organized global effort to pool resources, medical knowledge and people power to eradicate Ebola on African soil in the vulnerable communities most impacted by the disease.
While following the media coverage, I’ve been deeply disheartened by the lack of empathy and sympathy for the African people most affected by the spreading epidemic. African lives matter. So I reached out to Dr. Catherine Bolten, professor of anthropology and peace studies for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Bolten’s field work centers in Sierra Leone, which is one of the countries hardest hit by the virus. She left Sierra Leone and returned to the United States just as the epidemic began in June. She has first hand knowledge of how this disease destroys communities and is in contact with people struggling to provide aid in Ebola-stricken areas.
I recorded a 17 minute conversation with Dr. Bolten that covers her perspective on what the long range social, cultural and economic impacts will be on West African communities and why Americans actually need to care about that. We also discussed how the narrative about the global response to the crisis has been shaped by the media, including whether the American response differs, good or bad, from other countries. The heart of our conversation is grounded in how racism and capitalism have deeply influenced the global response to the need to provide to aid and care to Ebola-stricken communities, with a very pointed analysis about why there is no tested, readily available, low cost vaccine yet. Finally, we end on a call to action: what can ordinary Americans do to offer our help?