“You know, as soon as somebody from America gets that virus, all the sudden you’ll see some miraculous vaccine.”
I didn’t believe it at the time, but sure enough, after American doctor Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol contracted the disease in Liberia and were transported to the United States last week, news reports began to surface of an “experimental serum.”
The drug cocktail, called ZMapp, is currently in development by American and Canadian companies. It hadn’t previously been tested on humans, but both Writebol and Brantly have improved since receiving it.
Meanwhile, hundreds die – last count according to CNN was 932 – spreading across West Africa. More than 1, 700 cases have been reported in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. A businessman in Saudi Arabia died after visiting Sierra Leone and contracting the virus. A nurse’s death in Nigeria has stoked fears that the virus is beginning to spread to Africa’s most populous country.
Among the epidemic are children: their gaunt, haunted faces stare up out of news photographs. The L.A. Times writes that sometimes young children are placed in isolation units in their cribs. If they can, health workers place them next to windows, so people can wave. They give them toys to play with, keep them hydrated, and wait for the deadly virus to run its course or claim another helpless victim.
A nurse named Sayah said she’d never seen a child younger than four survive ebola.
I look across the room at a blown-up canvas of my 22-month-old son, Jake.
I’m not afraid that Jake will die of ebola.
I’m afraid that he, like so many of us, will fail to see the abundant blessings he’s been given, and instead live in fear, clinging tightly to what he has, and ignoring the priceless humanity of an unequal world.
Jake will grow up in a community with clean water, God willing. He will hear about suicide bombings and stories of 9/11, but most often war will be far from his home. He will be able to dress for school without worrying if the colors he’s wearing will offend a neighborhood gang.
When members of our family die, their bodies will be either preserved in a grave or cremated according to their wishes. Jake will not have the task of washing their bodies in a nearby river, especially if their bodies were infected with a deadly disease.
Lack of access to an experimental serum alone is not the only reason children in Africa are dying of Ebola and children in America aren’t. Believing that is to ignore a vast system of inequalities that shape one’s life from the moment you’re born.
Arthur L. Caplan, the director of medical ethics for NYU’s Langone Medical Center, writes for the Washington Post that: “privileged humans were always going to be the first to try (ZMapp, the experimental serum that fights Ebola).” Caplan explains the logistics of administering this serum, the required facilities and knowledge and procedures, all of which are difficult to maintain in the impoverished and sometimes nearly lawless countries of West Africa where ebola is currently raging.
This is, of course, about money. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the group of American and Canadian companies who is developing the serum, is sitting on a potential goldmine after years of work and research. They won’t give away the drug for free.
Our humanistic sensibilities as average – and perhaps naive – Americans rage against this heartless drug company. Certainly Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol would not have counted their lives as worth more than a poor African’s. Yet for money and privilege Brantly and Writebol live, and 932 Africans die.
What ebola does is point starkly to the inequity of life on this globe. It’s not a win-win. We may think Mapp Biopharmaceutical heartless for allowing the serum to be given to Writebol and Brantly, and not to the thousands infected in West Africa.
What we don’t often do, in the midst of a terrifying crisis halfway across the world, is look in the mirror.
Truth is, you benefit from inequality. I benefit from inequality. So do our children and our parents. We live in a vastly unequal world.
We tell our children life’s not fair. But mostly we say it when they confront someone who seems to have it better than they do. Life is full of examples of those who are better off, at least perceivably. The student in class next to you who received a full-ride scholarship. The guy on the train whose salary is double yours. The mother who hired a nanny to watch the kids while she got her nails done. The family who owns a lake cabin, a beach house, and a downtown condo.
The marriage that seems happier. The organization that’s doing better financially. The fancier house. The nicer car. The most enviable Facebook vacation photos.
Rarely do we see the other side. Life’s not fair – and most of the time you’re on the winning side.
A little realization of our relative security goes a long way. The first thought anyone has, including myself, when you hear about the ebola epidemic is OH NO I THINK I HAVE A FEVER.
Maybe after you think about it awhile though, you realize, “Hey, I’ve got it pretty good.” I don’t have to be so scared. Maybe for every person I think has it better than me, thousands of parents in West Africa are lining up and washing their children’s hands at a local well to try and avoid their premature death without hopes of the experimental serum that was saved for privileged me.
Maybe the world doesn’t become a better place when I get more. Maybe the world becomes a better place when I give more. Maybe it won’t ever be fair. But in the midst of unfairness, maybe I can be generous.
Here’s the good news: there are signs that even in the midst of unfairness and self-protection, generosity and selflessness is making a comeback.
The L.A. Times had another story about ebola last week. As the Peace Corps evacuated and the State Department issued travel warnings, and as infected Americans were shipped back to safety and advanced treatment in the homeland, the L.A. Times ran this headline: “U.S., foreign health workers flock to West Africa amid ebola crisis.”
Over the next month, the U.S. and the World Health Organization will send hundreds more health workers to West Africa, joining the valiant workers already there.
Human bodies are equipped with the well-known “fight or flight” response in the midst of crisis.
When it comes to ebola, we’re tempted to take flight. To fear. To pull ranks around ourselves and hunker down.
Yet we are also tempted to fight. To run in where others fled. To risk one’s own privilege for the sake of another, equally valuable in the sight of God, human life.
It’s the same fighting, loving impulse that led Christian nuns, monks and priests to remain in their villages during the Black Death plague of Europe. When all others left, they would come in and care for the sick, loving them even to the last moments before death.
This impulse comes not from this world, but from One who died to save this world.
The hope those brave health workers have: that in the midst of death one more might live, that just one person giving up privilege to come help fight not only ebola but also inequality and indifference – comes from a man whose death was never the end of the story, whose lack of privilege only served to make his improbable resurrection all the more miraculous; a man who knew one man’s death would bring countless others life.
This man’s name and the faith he inspired has been the fastest-growing story of religion in the 21st Century, on the continent where ebola currently rages.
Even amidst ebola, and inequality, and apartheid, and exploitation, and diamond mines and famine and religious war – this man’s name continues to inspire improbable life in the midst of death; and Christianity has become most alive in Africa, a place most Americans associate with death.
This man’s life, death, and resurrection; and the actions of His people in America and Africa – more so even than the experimental serum that saves the privileged first, then women and children – is what gives me hope in the face of inequality and ebola.