A few weeks ago, an embarrassing encounter forced me to come to terms with my own ignorance. I was leaving church on Sunday morning, just days after the news reported the first case of a medical worker contracting Ebola in the U.S., when I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a few weeks. While we were shaking hands, he told me that he had been in Ghana assisting with a humanitarian project. Instantly, he noticed the look on my face involuntarily change as I looked down at our still shaking hands.
Laughing, he assured me, “Just to let you know, there’s been more cases of Ebola in the United States than there has been in Ghana.” That’s because there has been exactly zero in the country.
The reality was, I had absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
My initial response was grounded in a fear of an extremely deadly virus that has killed thousands and devastated parts of West Africa. But more than that, it was based on ignorance of actual facts. It’s a problem that is becoming increasingly common in the fight against Ebola and in the efforts to treat those suffering from this terrible illness.
My reaction isn’t an isolated one. Fear of an outbreak of Ebola in United States—and misinformation about where in Africa it actually exists and how relatively difficult the virus is to catch—is a real problem. A chemist named Anthony England recently created this map that has since gone viral, showing just how isolated the outbreak is.
In Kentucky, a Catholic school teacher recently returned from a medical mission trip to Kenya only to have administrators ask that she take a 21 days leave of absence—the amount of time it takes for symptoms to become apparent—before returning to her job. The school said “strong parent concerns” about Ebola prompted the “precautionary leave.” Not only has Kenya not experienced a single case of Ebola, but the nearest case occurred nearly 3,000 miles away.
In a letter, the school and Archdiocese apologized, but informed parents that the teacher “communicated to the parish that in light of the poor communication and all that transpired, she felt unwelcome and did not see how she could effectively continue as a teacher. Therefore, she decided to resign.”
A nurse living in Maine, who had actually treated people suffering from Ebola in Sierra Leone, made national headlines in recent days when she defied a 21-day quarantine order by state officials going on a bike ride. Kaci Hickox, who works with Doctors without Borders, repeatedly tested negative for the virus and showed no symptoms. From Reuters:
Mandatory quarantines ordered by some U.S. states on doctors and nurses returning from West Africa’s Ebola outbreak are creating a “chilling effect” on Doctors Without Borders operations there, the humanitarian group said on Thursday.
State officials eventually relented on quarantine demands, though Hickox must inform them of her travels.
Back in August, when Christian missionary doctor Kent Brantly was brought back to the United States for treatment after contracting Ebola while serving in Liberia, conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote an awful piece titled “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded to ‘Idiotic.’” She argued that Brantley should have just stayed in the U.S., insinuating that somehow American celebrity lives were more valuable that those who were sick in West Africa: “If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.” She went on to condemn him for risking “making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.”
Brantly made a full recovery and has made several blood transfusions that help to save the lives several other Ebola patients.
Coulter’s views are obviously extreme, but they touch on a very real problem that the Ebola outbreak has exposed among some Americans: We’ve risked allowing fear to override not only facts, but also our calling to serve those in need.
It’s an issue Jesus addressed directly.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus is approached by man suffering from leprosy. Not only could the bacterial infection be devastating to its victims, it also carried with it a social stigma. According to Old Testament law, “He must cover his mouth and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ He will remain unclean as long as he has the infection; he is unclean. He must live alone in a place outside the camp.” But when Jesus encountered the leper, His reaction flew in the face of religious reservations.
“A man with leprosy came and knelt before Him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ He said. ‘Be clean’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.”
Before healing the man, Jesus first touched him. Because He wasn’t concerned with catching his illness. He was concerned about showing compassion.
God gives us wisdom, and obviously we should use discernment when faced with potentially dangerous situations. There are precautions we can take when they are actually warranted, but giving into unfounded fears and misinformation—or criticizing others who take personal risks to serve—is the exact opposite reaction we should have.
Health care workers serving in countries that have been hit by this terrible virus put their own health at risk to help those in need. They should be praised, not ostracized. They are living the message of Christ. And for Westerners to allow the fear of an outbreak happening in a relatively small region to distort our view of those living in or working on an entire continent is just plain ignorant.
Jesus’ message should cast out fear and empower service. If we truly believe His Word, our primary concern should be helping those suffering an illness, not protecting ourselves from it.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.