To save Africans from Ebola, salve their fears

The American military's efforts against the Ebola outbreak and other examples of foreign aid must first bolster the confidence of West Africans, in dealing with fear, distrust, isolation.

AP Photo
Five ambulances that were donated by the U.S. to help combat the Ebola virus are lined up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

As the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Liberia is no longer just a country. It is also now a patient, one that is rapidly coming under the care of the world health community.

Liberia’s leaders have been overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak, compelled to ask other nations to rush to the rescue. American soldiers, for example, will soon be building special treatment centers in Liberia and training as many as 500 health-care workers per week. Malaysia is sending millions of rubber gloves to West Africa.

In all, the United Nations expects nearly $1 billion will be needed to protect some 22 million people in the three countries most affected by Ebola – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Viewing these countries as patients is really part of the solution. Just as a doctor’s bedside manner can promote healing in a patient, the first step in eradicating Ebola is to deal with public fear, a breakdown of trust, and a sense of isolation and abandonment in each country.

That is especially true in Liberia, which is home to about half of Ebola cases. Many state institutions are not functioning. “Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence,” Brownie Samukai, the Liberian defense minister, told the UN Security Council.

While foreign assistance is critical, the main impact of such aid should be to give hope to each country and to build up confidence in local health systems. “Liberians are not going to be saved by internationals coming in,” Bruce Aylward, emergency chief of the World Health Organization, told The New York Times. “They’re going to be saved by Liberians.”

This crisis, Dr. Aylward says, is unparalleled in modern times, in part because of the perceived danger and uncertainties of Ebola. In addition, the world is challenged by the scale of the problem across so many countries.

The humanitarian compassion expressed toward the West African “patients” can act as a preventive. It can inspire local health workers and tamp down panic. It will dispel cold indifference and replace it with a moral elevation, or the tendency to witness a good deed and then help others in distress.

The world’s tangible assistance in treating Ebola, in other words, must be accompanied by intangible kindness. Healing is not only treating physical causes, and caring is not only managing symptoms. A health-care worker must also listen to patients and treat their fears with a loving touch.

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