Ebola fears should not blind us to compassion … or common sense

Along with Ebola in Africa, there’s been an outbreak of hysteria in Washington.
October 23, 2014

Along with Ebola in Africa, there’s been an outbreak of hysteria in Washington.

“The White House should immediately ban travel from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to contain the spread of Ebola,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said last week. “It’s time for Washington to take action to protect the American people.”

Supporting such a ban, Sen. Rand Paul (R- Ky.) said, “I think because of political correctness we’re not really making sound, rational, scientific decisions on this.”

In fact, it is the ability to make sound, rational and scientific decisions that has flown out the window — along with a sense of compassion.

The Jewish community should speak out forcefully against these calls. They are deeply flawed from a logical point of view, from a public policy point of view and from a moral point of view. The truth is that trying to seal U.S. borders, revoke visas, and ban flights to and from African nations will not protect the American people. In fact, such actions will endanger us further.

The vast and overwhelming majority of America’s leading public health professionals clearly that these isolationist measures would create a range of detrimental unintended consequences, sending the crisis into yet a deeper spiral. A flight ban on West African countries would not stop most people from coming to the United States. It would simply encourage travelers to use more circuitous routes and change planes in other countries, while hiding any contact that they have had with the disease. The challenging work of tracing the spread of Ebola — and preventing outbreaks in the U.S. — would become even more difficult for America’s public health professionals.

Further, a travel ban would make it nearly impossible for U.S. nongovernmental organizations to send aid workers into the stricken regions that are in grave need of assistance to treat the infected and to contain the spread of the disease. Broken health-care systems and a dire shortage of healthcare workers are a major driver of the rapid spread of Ebola. The disease has now claimed more than 4,500 lives; by many estimates, the number of infected people could d present conditions continue. The last thing we want to do is to withdraw from this global crisis.

The best way to safeguard our country — and our values, as Americans and Jews — is to act. As the president of Jewish World Watch (JWW) — an organization dedicated to fighting genocide and mass atrocities, with a major focus on conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — I often encounter people who say that we should let Africa solve its own problems. This notion is anything but Jewish. Indeed, it is fundamental in the Torah, and we have been taught through the ages, that Jews have a moral duty not only to protect our own but also to repair and steward the world. Through JWW’s work in Africa, I have witnessed directly how engagement and partnership in the world’s most violent, isolated and downtrodden areas, such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can produce miraculous results — results that lift people out of the depths of despair and save thousands of lives.

Conversely, I have also witnessed how Western complacency and inaction allows small challenges to grow into great catastrophes. From Rwanda to Sudan to Congo, many millions have perished in African “conflicts” that could have been contained if the international community acted earlier and more effectively.

In some ways, this Ebola outbreak is a product of that tragic history. Two of the three countries now devastated by Ebola have been ravaged by war over the past two decades. These recent conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone have claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people — and inflicted a major toll on these countries’ ability to build health infrastructure and respond to emergencies.

In Liberia, the health-care system is now teetering on the brink of collapse, with hospitals closing and medical staff fleeing the country. This has left much of the population without access to basic health-care services. As a result, death rates are skyrocketing among patients who do not have Ebola — from pregnant women to people with HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

There is great fear that political instability will follow in the wake of the chaos created by Ebola if and when it spreads across the African continent. As the crisis escalates, I can’t help but think of how it would devastate the many vulnerable communities that I have come to know in Congo, where some progress has been made in working toward peace after decades of war that has claimed the lives of 6 million people. In many communities that JWW supports, the nearest medical care is at least a 10-hour walk away.

Putting our heads in the sand and effectively withdrawing our doctors and humanitarian aid workers would leave many millions even more vulnerable and enable Ebola to continue spreading across Africa, around the world and into the United States. Instead of pulling back, we need a massive investment of resources and an influx of experts into the region to contain the disease before the crisis becomes even more catastrophic. Fighting Ebola will be expensive. But it will be much less destabilizing and much less costly — both in lives and in resources — the sooner the U.S. intervenes on the ground in Africa with all of our might.

The fear that drives so many to isolationism is human. Yet, our planet is too small — our world is too interconnected — to build a wall that shields us from Ebola. As Americans, as Jews, as human beings, now is the time to breathe life into our values — before it is too late. 

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch, an organization committed to combatting genocide and mass atrocities through education, advocacy and direct aid to survivors.

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