|Curtained bed for patients, Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a medieval hospital for the poor, France|
Inflamed by irresponsible radio talk shows or sensational TV coverage, there are conspiracy theories ranging from "Obama's trying to kill white people" to "the CIA created Ebola to kill black people." There are accusations, including the laughable notion that refugee children from countries where no recorded cases of Ebola exist are mass carriers of the disease into the United States. There are people who seem to think this is a sci-fi movie or a Stephen King novel, panicking that the disease will suddenly mutate and become as easy to catch as a summer cold.
There are xenophobic comments from people who can barely find Africa on a map, stating that the people of West Africa are "uncivilized" and "unclean" and who caught this disease from eating "apes." Some of these are well-meaning, though still racist, deploring the supposed squalor in these countries we enlightened Westerners should correct.
Some people question why any American aid worker would go to West Africa to help fight the disease. There are hateful accusations against the man from Liberia who died in Texas, accusing him of deliberately bringing the disease to the US. Some want to prevent everyday commerce and travel from occurring between these countries and ours. Yet others say we should nuke the whole region.
In fact, the way Ebola spreads is very well known to health professionals. It's spread by human contact. People who come into contact with a sick person's bodily fluids contract the disease if these fluids enter the system through broken skin or mucus membranes. It is only contagious when a person is suffering from the pain, fever, and racking sickness of the disease. Those at highest risk of infection are caregivers like health care workers, family members, mourners and people who handle the dead.
In short, this is a disease that spreads through human compassion.
And that's what's so heartbreaking about it. I heard an interview on NPR with some workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. They told a story about a woman who died in a hospital, leaving behind her infant child. The orphaned baby was kept isolated in a cardboard box, but the nurses could not keep themselves from comforting it. Seven of the ten nurses who cared for the child contracted the disease and died of it.
Mothers contract it from their sick children, wives from the husbands they care for. Daughters from the sick parents they clean up for. Sisters from brothers whose bodies they tend, grandmothers from wiping the fevered brow of a stricken grandchild. The man who died in Texas helped a family take a sick daughter to the hospital. The family died and later he too fell ill.
It's hard to imagine the choices people are forced to make. If a spouse breaks a fever, do you turn away from him? If a child spits up, do you dare to wipe it away? If your brother soils himself, do you let him lie in his own mess, or do you give him the dignity of being washed clean? If your sister is racked with pain, do you turn her out of your house instead of comforting her?
We should understand how profound a challenge this disease is to our humanity.
Professionals who care for the sick and those who clean up after the dead are making a terrible but courageous choice. They put themselves in danger in the hopes of gaining control over this terrible scourge. Those of us who can't or won't, for whatever reason, should at least honor their sacrifices and bravery instead of condemning them for it.
The people making hateful comments on message boards and the cynical media figures encouraging the hatred should feel perfectly safe. They are in no danger. They will not contract Ebola from Central American refugee children, do-gooder missionaries, or immigrants from West Africa.
They will not put themselves in a situation where they will care for the sick, clean a soiled body, or comfort bereaved relatives.
You have to have compassion to catch this disease.