First, some perspective is in order. Though this latest outbreak of the Ebola virus has, tragically, claimed the lives of more than 3,800 people, including one victim in the United States, the disease remains terrifying more within the media-stoked American imagination than as a practical threat in most parts of the world. Only one person has become infected outside the West African viral zone, though more desperate people like Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who died in Dallas on Oct. 8, will surely try to escape outposts of poverty in Africa for treatment in more affluent quarters of the world.
Ebola is a frightening disease and its mortality rate is formidable; but in the months while it has been ravaging West Africa, just as many people, if not more, have fallen victim to malaria alone. In fact, easily preventable illnesses like malaria, measles and diarrhea claim about half a million children under 5 each year in Africa, and thousands perish from complications arising from another notorious scourge—plain old, small-type hunger.
The World Health Organization is enduring a good share of criticism for a sluggish response to Ebola, but blame for this unprecedented crisis can be widely distributed. The sluggishness did not begin last spring at W.H.O. headquarters in Geneva; it began decades ago in capitals across the West. The potential for a global outbreak of a dangerous virus like Ebola has been long predicted and various remedies prescribed. The most obvious countermeasures to the threat have been well known, if ultimately ignored—developing low-tech capacity in the impoverished nations of the world to respond adroitly to outbreaks, drilling wells to provide potable water, building up minimum sanitation capacity to prevent the spread of disease and better distributing the world’s wealth in foodstuffs. That last measure would not only fortify bodies against illness but relieve the necessity for hungry people to seek out bush meat, whose consumption is the frequent starting point of viral outbreaks. It is suspected that Ebola was transmitted to human hosts through exposure to or consumption of fruit bats.
While Western leaders congratulate themselves on meeting Millennium Development Goals on poverty, an achievement that increasingly appears statistically dubious, payment on third world debt continues to consume resources that should have been committed to mitigating the vulnerability of people in places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, where Ebola has hit hardest. Now U.N. officials say they need $1 billion to address this latest health crisis, and global leaders are descending on the hot zone with resources and matériel to stave off an epidemic that threatens to escape the continent. But how seriously should such efforts be judged? For far too long, profit has overshadowed need; the West prefers market forces to dictate health care and research priorities. And each year spending on making war dwarfs investments in economic development, a warped prioritizing that Pope Francis has deemed a global scandal.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis decries a “globalization of indifference” and “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” He writes: “The majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident.”
Humanity, he argues, is near a historic pivot. How shall it turn? To a “generous solidarity” or to an anxious, obstinate withdrawal?
The hungry and the jobless cross borders when they have to, regardless of the law. Now the sick are sure to join them. Globalization means there is no such thing as the third world or the first world; there is only our world. If it is true, as some suspect, that Thomas Duncan fled West Africa’s quarantine to seek treatment in Dallas, he might have miscalculated. Poverty, poor social prioritizing and diminished health care capacity are not problems in West Africa alone. All the high-tech health care in the world is little use to a person given marginal treatment at an emergency room because he does not have health insurance.
If we cannot be persuaded to solidarity by its moral appeal and the spiritual justness of it, we will be strong-armed into a broken and perilous version of solidarity by the reality of air travel and leaky national borders. If the great gifts of the world and human creativity are not mercifully shared, human ingenuity and desperation will converge to press some other compensatory encounter. It would be better if mercy, compassion and relationships were the driving forces of solidarity, as the church has long taught. But until then, Ebola will do the job for us.