Friday, October 24, 2014

Ebola Coaster

Today, I am over being afraid of Ebola.

Oh, I’m still concerned. This disease is nothing to sniff at. But, my focus and fascination and fear of this disease ebbs and flows. Today (thankfully), I’m on a low tide. It’s been a real process digesting the news from at home and across Africa, like a rollercoaster with its own stages of isolation, fear, denial, anger and acceptance.  I call it: my Ebola-coaster.

Isolation: Oh Look At How Interesting That is Far, Far Away from Here
When it was just African news back in July, I was chatting with a Western doctor living in Malawi and asked him his opinion. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “If my wife let me, I’d volunteer in a minute.” Why? “Because there’s so little known about this disease; here is a firsthand chance.”
Seemed like a rather macabre reason, but the development crowd – especially the adrenaline junkie humanitarian types- are known to run towards a burning building rather than away. I was impressed by his professional curiosity, but gave ebola no further thought.

As the epidemic grew, so did my interest.  I don't work in the medical field (agriculture), but just through living in here Malawi, I have a small taste for what the hospitals are like. Electricity and supplies are intermittent even during the best of times.  Families must provide food, care and wash the patient during their stay. If there are no families, there is no food.

Rickety public medical systems are already stretched by everyday medical needs (malaria, AIDS, TB, even having a baby). (A staff member of mine had to go to four different hospitals just to find the proper vaccinations for her baby).

Ebola has effectively demolished what little care there was, causing more deaths through non-treatment than on its own. And while people are dying, economies are tottering, for no one is planting, weeding, harvesting, buying or selling.  I watched the news with a sinking feeling in my gut, knowing that the smoke from this fire would waft far and wide.   

One night over drinks, my public health friend predicted gravely, “Things are going to get worse before they get worse.”  

I soon found myself double checking the number of international flights into Lilongwe per day (Four)? How many come directly from West Africa? (None). Again, I work in agriculture. Not something where you find a lot of sick people. Still, my alarm swung wildly from day to day. Was it going to come to Malawi? It would never come to Malawi.  OH MY GOD WHAT IF IT COMES TO MALAWI? What will we do if all the flights book up, and the borders close, and we can’t get back home? (pantpantpant).

With a Side Of….Guilt
In the middle of all this, USAID put out a call for help and a few friends started volunteering on the front lines. Whoa, I thought, this is getting serious. I felt guilty. I’m a development professional, I should go, too. But, would I really? (And what would I do? Milk cows?). I felt the terror fly through my veins, then shame, knowing I could never, ever be that strong.  I thought of my friend, the doctor from July, and wondered if his wife had changed her mind.

Then it hit me: This epidemic isn’t about me, and how I feel.  It’s not about putting up walls and barriers, trying to run away from or drown out the cries for help.  This epidemic is about common human decency.

I am simply flooded with gratitude for those who can and have volunteered, who continue to run towards the epicenter, who lift dying mothers into taxis and into houses, all the while, putting themselves at risk. I am grateful, and I am ashamed of myself, because I know I could never do it. These people are the real heroes, and I pray for them.

Nowadays, I’m more angry about blind panic than anything else. America looks pretty silly right now. Never before have our xenophobia, racial overtones and fear of the “Other” been so much on display. Never before has our ignorance of Africa’s geography been so well highlighted. My fervent hope is that we’ll use this fear to get educated.

While midterm elections swirl and politicians debate what kind barriers we should put up, I keep thinking: This is not about America.  I know that America is a big, messy, complicated place. Gnashing our horrible teeth and roaring our horrible roars and debating our horrible debates is part of who we are. But this epidemic is about doing what is decent for the global public health, even when it’s hard. Even when we’re terrified. 

While all the above emotions still linger, my partner and I recently made up a plan. Luckily, we are close friends with some people at the Center for Disease control here and can take our cues from them (“When his family goes, we go,” says Kevin).  **EDIT: It also helps that Malawi is over 3200 miles from the closest country with ebola. Folks in London are closer).***The ride isn’t over, but I am getting educated, and I am getting over myself.

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