The Most Radical Reaction to Ebola is Compassion

Over the weekend, my wife, Mary, told me that she intends to get a flu shot this year (which she never does) because she believes it will prevent her from contracting Ebola.

I think she is only partially kidding.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that a nurse in Dallas has contracted Ebola from the patient who died there last week. It was the lead story in my local paper, and I’m guessing that it was on the front page of your go-to news source as well. We can’t look away from disaster.

Or, in this case, perceived disaster.

Ebola is indeed a terrible disease, but I’m convinced that it does not warrant the hysteria it has created in the United States.

Ebola has been linked to Liberia, and anyone from that country is now considered a potential carrier of the disease. Until recently, few Americans could find Liberia on the map, which is remarkably ironic.

Here’s why.

Liberia was established as a country in 1820 by freed African-American slaves. The colonizers, known as Americo-Liberians, were helped by the American Colonization Society, which believed that emancipated slaves should return to Africa. The country established a government modeled after that of the United States. Its capital, Monrovia, is named after American president James Monroe. English is Liberia’s official language.

In 1980, a bloody coup overthrew the Americo-Liberian leadership and for years there has been political and economic instability. Almost half a million Liberians died during the civil war.

Few Americans took notice.

As a United Methodist minister, I am amazed that there are more than 400,000 United Methodists in Liberia, far more than in one Methodist Annual Conference in the U.S.

Recently, a man came to our Church Health Center clinic complaining of a headache and eye pain that had lasted for two weeks. I noticed he had an unusual accent.

“Where are you from?,” I asked.

“Liberia,” he said.

“Are you worried about Ebola?”

His tears were forthcoming. Not for himself, but for all his family and friends who are at risk and who are unable to travel because of the quarantine.

It was clear why his head and eyes were hurting. It wasn’t Ebola: it was his heart aching for those he cares about the most. Still, there are those who would want me to test him for Ebola just because he is a native of Liberia. Where is the compassion in this reactive response?

This week when I see my patients, I will undoubtedly encounter someone with a fever. They might even be of African descent. When that happens, my first thought will be that they have the flu.

When I gave my wife her flu shot this morning, I prayed for the nurse in Dallas and all those in Liberia we distanced ourselves from long ago. When this health scare has subsided, maybe we will remember our historical and spiritual connection to a people who have suffered greatly.

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