By Deborah Cho
It’s been over half a year since the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, yet the number of cases and deaths from the disease continue to rise. The total case count as of September 29, 2014 is 6,574 and total deaths are at 3,091. Even so, the international response, as a whole, seems to be lacking. As I lived near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia this past summer, I was acutely aware of the Ebola epidemic’s magnitude while it had the media’s attention. The attention given was similar to that given to a car accident on the side of a road as onlookers drive on by without stopping to offer help. Unfortunately, it was quite clear that aid efforts were woefully inadequate and that the disease would continue to spread rapidly without a stronger response. It seemed that though our curiosity about this virus was at an all-time high, our national concern for the epidemic and its casualties were extremely minimal other than in the brief moments when we were faced with prospect of flying in two of our own infected citizens.
I remember checking CDC Director Dr. Frieden’s Twitter for updates and initially thinking that his posts seemed too alarmist for a high-profile official (e.g. Ebola is “spiraling out of control” and will “get worse before it gets better”). It seemed that his response should have been to comfort followers by invoking confidence in our public health mechanisms, rather than to spark fear of the disease. Even this week, he links this article from his account, where it is highlighted that Ebola could infect up to 1.4 million people by January. I realized though that he, along with the President are speaking this way out of necessity (and, hopefully, are speaking accurately) because so many pleas for help during this epidemic have thus far gone unanswered.
So why does it seem like no one is listening? Though there presumably exist many more public health needs than we are realistically able to tackle, this seems to be one that really does call for some immediate intervention. This Ebola crisis started with one case and now has the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of lives. It could have been stopped or at least blunted. Part of the issue seems to be that the responsibility is not properly being assumed. Though a recent interview with an infectious disease expert pinpointed the inadequacy of the response to the WHO and various governments, it seems that there has to be something ordinary people should and ought to do. After all, something seems inherently wrong about sitting back and watching casually as thousands of people die unnecessarily. It seems that we as a society may not have met our ethical obligation to value the lives of those already affected and those who will be affected in the near future.
I’m not sure what to say other than, as we discuss public health law and bioethical quandaries with the aim of bettering the world around us, I hope we don’t forget our individual duties to live as compassionate beings.