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A first responder to the fear of Ebola

Compassion toward Ebola patients starts to kick in as more people, especially health-care workers, put fear and prejudice in their place. The crisis demands a humanitarian response as much as isolation of Ebola.

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    Sierra Leone Muslim faithful listen to an Imam recite sensitization messages about Ebola outside of Freetown Oct. 4.
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Even before a case of Ebola was diagnosed in the United States last month, a Harvard University poll recorded a high level of fear among Americans. Four of 10 people were concerned about an outbreak. One in 4 said he or she or a family member would succumb within a year.

With such public anxiety, compassion was hard to find for the family who has lived in an apartment with Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient in Dallas, before he sought treatment at a hospital. As their apartment needed to be cleaned, no one wanted to give them a place to live.

But then Dallas County’s top elected official, Judge Clay Jenkins, stepped in. He found homeowners willing to take them in. “There is a lot of misinformation and erroneous fear,” he told reporters. “The people that are being monitored are real people, too – that need your prayers.”

His reaction – one of not letting irrational fear get in the way of compassion – has become more common as more people around the world, especially health-care workers, put hope above fear and action before retreat.

In the West Africa nations hit by Ebola, hundreds are now volunteering for jobs as nurses or other front-line workers. Hundreds more from other countries are heading to Africa. “It’s almost a privilege to be there and just hold a hand,” Dr. Hernando Garzon, an emergency department physician in Sacramento, Calif., told the Sacramento Bee, before his trip to Sierra Leone.

West Africa needs more than medical supplies to counter Ebola. It and the rest of the world first need to put the fear of Ebola and a prejudice toward its victims in their proper place.

“We talk about stigma and ignorance in Liberia, but let’s be frank, there’s plenty of stigma and ignorance in our own countries, and irrational fear of being on the ground. We have an obligation to counter that fear,” Sheldon Yett, the UNICEF country representative in Liberia, told The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

Much of the foreign aid being sent to West Africa is designed to contain the outbreak. The US, for example, has sent soldiers to build medical facilities. Governments have a huge capacity to act quickly. But just as important are individuals who decide to act simply to bring healing to both victims and entire nations.

“Charities and individual philanthropies have given generously and they can make a big difference,” President Obama said. “And more citizens – of all nations – can educate themselves on this crisis, contribute to relief efforts, and call on their leaders to act.  So everybody can do something.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, pledged $50 million, perhaps the largest private donation so far. But smaller donors are stepping up. They see the crisis as much as a humanitarian need as one of self-preservation. That instinct of love took a while to kick in. But now it has put a fear of Ebola in its place.

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