Fear-Fueled American Dialogue on Ebola: Neither Moral Nor Effective

By Christina Bartzokis

In the US, eight people have been diagnosed with Ebola, and two have died. In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, 14,383 people have been diagnosed with Ebola, and 5,165 have died. Despite this enormous disparity, the US public response to Ebola is shaped by fear, not humanitarianism. At the panel “The Morality of Fear: The U.S. Response to Ebola,” Co-Director of the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership Gregg Gonsalves told attendees, “It’s obscene that our narcissism has let us make this into our own drama when it’s a drama that is really playing out in West Africa.”

He, and fellow panelists Ryan Byoko, Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Public Health, and Reverend Philip S. Blamo, Vice President of the Liberian Community Association of Connecticut, went on to discuss the failures of the American response to the crisis. The panelists criticized the climate of national hysteria for damaging the fight against the disease in West Africa.

Ebola virus. Source: Creative Commons

Quarantines are a good example of national hysteria taking over. State governments have enacted 21-day quarantines for anyone returning from West Africa in defiance of Center for Disease Control recommendations. According to Byoko, research on Ebola indicates that people are not infectious until they show symptoms, and even then are unlikely to contaminate others for up to four days after becoming symptomatic. Quarantines also have a “chilling effect” on aid work. The international non-profit Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has been forced to shorten assignments in West Africa because of state-imposed measures. MSF staff members are increasingly concerned about what they will face when they return home from assignment.

Internally focused panic about Ebola in the US has been fueled by its media coverage and its use in campaigns during the midterm elections. Gonsalves said that “journalists reneg[ed] on their responsibilities” by allowing “rationality [to be] drowned out by unhinged voices.” He also noted that public health officials had abdicated their responsibility by corroborating scientifically inaccurate conceptions of the Ebola threat in a public forum, and by failing to oppose unhelpful public policies enacted by state governments. Similarly, many candidates in the elections capitalized on public fear of Ebola by advocating for harsher restrictions. After the elections, reports on Ebola diminished dramatically.

Ultimately, the short-term and fear-fueled American response to Ebola may fail to address the root cause of the outbreak: an inadequate international health system. While MSF struggled to contain an epidemic, and the international community dragged its feet over a cohesive response, many global organizations such as the World Health Organization and the African Union were noticeably absent. The deficit in global public health capabilities was exacerbated by budget cuts following the 2008 global financial crisis, and has been exposed by international failure in the current epidemic. As a whole, Gonsalves said, the international community has no program to consistently invest in health systems in underdeveloped countries, a trend that is unlikely to reverse following the containment of Ebola.

The media attention that triggered the current overreaction contrasts sharply with the usual under-reaction to humanitarian health crises such as malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. Because the response to Ebola is based primarily on American fears rather than humanitarian concern, it is unlikely to translate into a long-term campaign global health campaign. Even the medical infrastructure built to combat Ebola is unsustainable. It is not designed to provide care permanently, but only until Western concerns about Ebola are assuaged. When the epidemic is over, tent cities will be torn down and temporary labs will fall into disrepair – the global health deficit will remain, but it will no longer bother the West.

Christina Bartzokis is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be contacted at christina.bartzokis@yale.edu