We’re still talking about Ebola?

Opinion by Mina Shah
March 10, 2015, 9:44 p.m.

No one is talking about Ebola anymore. Even though the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to cause problems for local populations there, news of the outbreak has largely dropped out of media discourse here.

Over the summer, when the rate of spread was high and the threat of Ebola extending to the U.S. and Europe was imminent, it seemed as though people in public and media outlets would talk about nothing else. International bodies took drastic actions: Aid organizations pulled workers from West Africa, and the United States government effectively banned any casual travel to Ebola-affected countries and strongly discouraged travel to any country in West Africa. Stanford pulled students out of West Africa at the peak of the attention and worry, including those working on fellowships and people living with their families at the time. The university also canceled a summer seminar that had planned to go to Ghana.

Despite the continued local and global relevance of what is happening with regard to the outbreak, conversations have petered out. Many popular news outlets, including The New York Times and National Public Radio, have shifted their coverage from specific news stories that aim to get a sense of what conditions are actually like to simple tallying of areas in which the disease continues have presence, personal narratives, or accounts from the journals of aid workers. Some sources, like NBC News, The San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and The LA Times, don’t even have status updates every day.

Similarly, students aren’t having conversations regarding Ebola on campus. Columns on the subject in this newspaper have slowed and finally stopped, and, other than the assaulting signs at Vaden reminding people to tell a healthcare professional immediately if you’ve been to Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone in the past twenty-one days, no one seems to be actively concerned about the state of things in affected areas.

This may be partially due to the fact that the situation has recently improved, if only marginally. In fact, just this past Friday, the Liberian government announced that their last Ebola patient had been released from quarantine. Not that any of us would know about that.

The slowing spread of the disease and its eradication in some places ought to bolster discussions about Ebola. We should be reflecting on what strategies did and did not work in combatting the disease, as well as trying to figure out how to keep such an outbreak from happening again–or at least determine better containment protocols if cases start to spread anew.

The Ebola outbreak has caused problems in every facet of society in affected communities: medical, political, economic, international position, and educational. In addition to this, there is a need to improve technologies and infrastructure to help end the outbreak and prevent similar things from happening in the future. The nature of the various problems percolating in West Africa toward or after the end of Ebola outbreak in various countries ought to greatly interest students on this campus, if for nothing other than the intellectual challenge that a scenario like this poses for every discipline. Pre-meds ought to be overwhelmed with the challenge of finding a vaccine and why the disease seems to be spreading more slowly. Engineers face the challenge of building cheaper, portable medical equipment that could help the treatment process be more effective. Computer scientists can work on developing more comprehensive and comprehensible tracking systems to keep tabs on patients and their families. They could also work on programming apps that could network an alert system in case someone in a community is exhibiting symptoms.

Historians ought to be busy at work fitting this into the histories of these various countries and analyzing the implications of the historical positionality of these events. Policymakers ought to be talking with historians and thinking about how to make policies that will strengthen national infrastructures to prevent an outbreak of this size from happening again. Persons interested in international relations and development ought to also be interested in the disease’s impact on the state of affairs of the global community. Economists should be interested by the impact on local and global economies.

People interested in education should be working to understand the way these countries are circumventing the necessity of school closures to continue educating children. Philosophers–the moral and ethical implications of initial international response to the outbreak and the follow-ups after the fact. Literature majors should be interested in collecting patient stories, capturing the voices of people who got better, and determining how these sorts of narratives fit into a greater context of global narratives of disease.

This is all to say that we should still care. We have plenty of reason to, but we simply don’t. Why is that?

The distance helps. The Ebola patients aren’t readily visible to us on campus. They aren’t in our immediate community, and it’s easy, especially with our busy schedules and the other things that we think about, to forget and ignore that which isn’t right in front of us.

But this doesn’t mean that this is acceptable. We as a community need to be better. We need to be more aware and care, regardless of how far away people are. They are people, and as a result, we have a responsibility to care about what’s going on the world. All of the issues in the world. “It’s too hard,” or “It’s too far away,” or “It’s too overwhelming,” are not adequate excuses, and they don’t absolve us of our responsibility to at least know and care to know what’s going on.

Contact Mina Shah at [email protected].

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