Last week I was stunned by the unkind comment of the stranger next to me as we filled a container with donated cans of soup at the local food bank. The comment came after a polite discussion that almost lulled me into dangerous camaraderie with this woman whose conversation segued from motherly pride in her daughter’s nursing career to her idea that Ebola is God’s punishment. “Whoa!” I put up my hand and responded with the usual; where was God when….(insert any historical scourge here). I pointed out Nazi Germany’s contribution to earthly scourges but, after a few days of contemplation, I know there is not much I could say to this woman and others like her who make their stabs at somatic immunity by volunteering in local food banks and presuming to know what God has in mind for believers and non-believers. And maybe my discomfort comes from my own questioning about a belief system that asks me to suspend belief in reality; a reality in which I live. The reality here is that Ebola is not new and as long as it stayed in some faraway land punishing others for being… well, the “other,” Ebola remained that terrible disease plaguing those sad people in that faraway land. Ebola is here, in our face, live and in living color (cue the hysteria).
We first-world (as opposed to third-world) inhabitants are quite predictable in our approach to life; we live our comfortable lives (some more comfortable than others) consumed with the daily familial and material concerns of the species. Oh, we read the headlines as we pass from one engagement to the next but no headline gets our attention like the local headline giving us the exact location and identity of the killer who has been knocking at our door for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Ebola was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1994 Richard Preston introduced a generation of readers to The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, a non-fiction thriller that frightened even Steven King who, according to Wikipedia said the first chapter of The Hot Zone was “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life. ” Preston’s book paints indelible images of people in the throes of hemorrhagic fevers and bursting vomit-bags of black bile on transatlantic flights. (After reading the Preston’s book in ’95 I have seriously changed my original position on monkeys as sweet and adorable pets). But Preston’s bestseller did not act as wake up call for the “free world”; shaking our collective shoulders and encouraging us to answer the door. No, it was not until the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, according to Slate.com, that serious research spending occurred at the behest of Dick Cheney whose fear of America’s vulnerability to attack by enemies using bioweapons (as if airplanes were not enough) prompted the Project Bioshield Act. And here is just another story from the file of tragic irony; were it not for the vicarious warriors – those men who fight wars with other people’s children – and their projection of retribution, we would be living with an even worse prognosis for survival.
It is Monday morning, our favorite team has lost the game leaving fans with nothing but hindsight to tell us that America has, once again, been caught deaf to the knocking of humanity. Had we listened to those doctors on the front lines fighting diseases (diseases that know no politics or religion) we wouldn’t be in this heightened state of terror. Had we studied the past, listened to our hearts, and reached out with all the atomic weight our country can muster (especially in times of war) to assist a world far less fortunate, we would not be at this intersection of moral chaos and panic. We allow the scourge of Ebola to continue by proclaiming it a part of “God’s” plan – a passive aggressive approach that did not work with the aids virus. As a country we need to read, reason, and understand. After reading the story of the Ebola virus in The Hot Zone we should have understood Preston’s terrifying conclusion: EBOV will be back. And so it has.