The virus of the poor is reaching our neighbourhood

“On 26 December 2013, a 2-year-old boy in the remote Guinean village of Meliandou fell ill with a mysterious illness characterized by fever, black stools and vomiting. He died 2 days later.” This is the information published on the website of the World Health Organization (WHO) about the first case of the current Ebola outbreak, the 14th of its kind after the discovery of the virus in 1976 and the most complex so far. Due to the severe fatality rate of 70% and its transmission from human to human, the virus rapidly spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Three months after the boy´s death, the first isolation center was set up by the humanitarian-aid organization Doctors without Borders. With more than 700 international aid workers and 3.000 West Africans it´s by far the biggest organization fighting against the virus in West Africa. The WHO published its first report on the outbreak the day after and several countries started to close their borders to prevent the virus to spread to their territories. Nevertheless, the virus kept spreading. End of July the first victim was reported in the city of Lagos in Nigeria, country that luckily managed to to be free of the virus three months later.    

The media didn´t give too much attention to the disease, many put their focus on the Soccer World Cup in Brazil. At the end of July official reports calculated 887 deaths. Due to the difficulty of counting, the number could have been even higher. But then everything changed when the first American missionary aid worker Kent Brantley was taken in for treatment at the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. It started to spread. But this time not the virus itself, but panic supported massively by the media. There was concern if the health system in the U.S would be capable to stop this “wave of new infections”.  One press conference followed another, covering also the treatment of the second patient who arrived at the same hospital some days later. Vice-president Biden emphasized the strong health system of the country and Tom Freiden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, had “no doubt that Ebola in the US will be controlled”.

On August 2014, the international media focussed on the infected Americans and Teresa Romero, the first nurse infected outside of Africa while she was treating a Catholic priest who later died in Madrid. The escalation of infected people on the other side of the world was hardly noticed. Troops sent to the street tried to contain the escape of quarantined citizens using tear gas and other weapons. One adolescent died because of a gunshot. On September 2014, the situation in Liberia was completely out of control. Instead of quarantine centers, crematories were built. Agonizing persons were just left outside the houses. After dying, their highly infectious bodies rotted on the streets. Several escapes of the crowded treatment centers show a part of the terrible and chaotic conditions these countries are going through.

Just sweep over the images for more details.

Nowadays there is still ignorance among native people. At least one in every five infection occurs during touching and washing, not knowing that the virus spreads by direct contact with body fluids and personal objects. Centers are crawling with death and people resist to go there for treatment. For them the “astronauts” bring death.

WHO and United Nations ask the international community to help those countries that are close to collapsing. Financial resources, doctors, nurses, health workers, engineers, soldiers as well as protective clothes, desinfectants and any kind of vaccines: everything is required.

Some years ago, Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote a book called “Ensayo sobre la ceguera” where an incurable blindness epidemic takes place. The similarities of the escalation of conflicts in the story with the actual situation are surprising. While in the book there is only one woman left who can see, in the current outbreak there are many who can see the misery, but prefer to keep their eyes closed.

For every disease a fast response is the most effective way to control it. Those who could give that fast response look away, concentrating the efforts on their own borders. Are our airport procedures effective, how can we battle the virus here? Therefore those who need a fast response don´t get it. They are losing, as well as Guinea, Sierra Leone. But if we take a deeper look, we are all losing. Whilst there is no incentive to develop vaccines for Africa, laboratories won´t produce it. There won´t be one available until next spring. Considering the fact that the disease might expand to the Western World, now there is a better incentive to do so. That´s how our market works.

The general incentive to help other countries seems to be self- interest. We act if one of our citizens is in need or a disease may reach our country. The only time I saw people of the Western World  going out on the streets expressing their concern about Ebola  was in the case of Excalibur. He´s not one of the more than 6.928 confirmed death cases until end of november 2014, he´s the dog of Spanish nurse Teresa Romero. About 300.000 persons signed to avoid the euthanasia and started a massive social media campaign.

There was a great indignation because the  campaign didn´t succeed: Excalibur was put out of his misery, having by the way a more dignified death than a thousand other citizens. Nevertheless the fact that it is praiseworthy to try to save an animal, the massive concern is quite unproportional comparing to the indifference towards the people in Africa.

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This is not just about this disease, it´s far more than that. More virus outbreaks will come. Nationalities will still mark the difference between a good treatment and dying and the country or region of outbreak will determine the efforts of the International Community. But taking a look at the horrifying graphic, we notice that the real disease is not Ebola but extreme poverty. We are able to send a 1-billlion-dollar expensive space prob to a comet four sun-earth distances away, but we can´t send effective help to people dying just some thousand kilometers away. All those heroic doctors and nurses trying to win a battle for all of us should not depend on donations.

We have the chance to learn how to fight effectively against the next disease that will come after the current one. Although the death toll and infection rate of Ebola is slowing, there is still a lot to do. 

First of all, we have to change our minds. Actually, we are mostly indifferent towards poor people in underdeveloped countries far away. What matters to us is our own life and where we live. The virus of the poor reaching our neighbourhood shows us that our sensation of personal security was wrong. We have to realize  that every human life has the same value and deserves the same protection. We have to fight against poverty and for better living conditions of the poor. If we didn´t do it for humanity, now we have to do it for our own safety. We are still on time.

Benjamin Alvarez

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