Ebola hysteria: Our focus must shift

Opinion by Sara Orton
Oct. 23, 2014, 12:48 a.m.

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the worst that has ever been recorded. Over 9,000 people have been infected with the illness, and already almost 4,500 have died. That is equivalent to more than half of the entire undergraduate student population at Stanford. The outbreak began in March, and since then has worsened exponentially in West Africa; however, the reaction from the world’s “more developed” nations, as well as international organizations such as the UN and the WHO, the UN’s specialized health agency, have been hugely lacking. The amount of hysteria that has exploded in the United States of the few cases on American and European soil dwarves the reaction we have given to the thousands already dead from Ebola in West Africa. The focus must shift back to West Africa, and to supporting the struggling health infrastructures as much as possible.

The health infrastructure has completely deteriorated in West Africa; people are falling ill and dying in the street, there are insufficient hospitals and beds for those battling Ebola, health workers themselves are falling ill and dying and the demand for protective garb for health workers is not remotely met. But it took until Ebola’s landing on European and American soil for the media and the public to react with urgency to the epidemic, and for those of us very far removed from the outbreak to even remotely comprehend the horror of the situation.

There has been unprecedented attention placed on the few token cases in Madrid where nurses and health workers contracted the disease, and there has been frenzied attention given to the cases of Ebola in the United States. Since the appearance of Ebola in the United States, five percent of America thinks Ebola has become the most important issue facing the country today, according to a Gallop poll. In August and September, when Ebola was rampant in West Africa, completely uncontained and killing hundreds, the disease did not even make the list of the most pressing problems facing America. Once one person fell ill from the disease, nearly half of Americans fear they, or a family member, will contract it.

While it is incredibly scary to imagine that there could be an epidemic of Ebola in the United States, or in Spain, or in Europe generally, the reality of the epidemic in West Africa that is currently unfolding should be equally scary to the world. Upon hearing the news that a Spanish nurse had contracted ebola in Madrid, most Spaniards were concerned. But they knew they should warn us, the North Americans, not to worry too much because we are “always so concerned for our own health and wellbeing”.  And it is true — upon finding out that somebody in Madrid had contracted ebola, it became a huge topic of conversation for us Americans in Madrid.

It is natural to fear for one’s own life, one’s own safety. But the lack of public concern and media attention for the already-rampant epidemic in West Africa is unsettling. The amount of media attention and public frenzy over the few cases of Ebola in the United States and in Spain has been astounding, and instead of bringing into the spotlight the tragic nature of the disease and the irrevocable consequences on the people of West Africa, many Americans have called for a ban on all travel to and from Ebola-stricken countries. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, himself even advocated for this ban. A travel ban could effectively strand West Africans without volunteer international health workers. Rather than give in to our own hysteria over whether Ebola will spread in the United States, a country with an incredibly competent healthcare infrastructure, we should fight against the hysteria, and use our voices and our international power to help those in Ebola-stricken areas and countries.

Cuba has given the world an excellent example of what would be a helpful and productive reaction to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa; they have sent over 500 medical professionals to Sierra Leone, Liberia and other sites with widespread prevalence of Ebola to help deal with the pandemic directly. Cuba’s healthcare system is one of the most successful in the world, and they have extended a diplomatic arm to the United States in their fight against Ebola.

Instead of adding to the hysteria over a worldwide epidemic, the United States and other countries with healthcare infrastructures capable of dealing with Ebola, such as Spain, should come to the aid of West Africa more fully. The energy we have spent protecting ourselves against a few cases of Ebola in the United States would have been put to much better use in stopping the epidemic from killing the thousands it has already taken.

Contact Sara Orton at sorton ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sara Orton '16 is an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. She is currently living and studying in Madrid, and will be avoiding the harsh Palo Alto winter in Capetown next quarter. Sara is an International Relations major and enjoys Amy Poehler, politics, borrowing other people's rally, and complaining about the fall of romantic comedies as a genre. You can reach her at [email protected].

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