Disease, Development, and Indifference

Just over three years ago, the Ebola crisis in West Africa dominated global headlines, striking fear into those wary of its potency and transmissibility. Hospitals and clinics in the United States posted warnings about the disease. Doctors required disclosure of recent travel to affected regions. Public exposure to the virus was limited to media outlets covering the outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) deployed teams to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three countries most affected, in hopes of limiting the epidemic. Kent Brantly, an American aid worker, became infected in July of 2014, joining a handful of American aid workers to have contracted the disease. Despite reassurances from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American public was nervous:

Hazmat crews boarded a plane in Boston. Traffic was halted near the Pentagon when a woman fell ill on a bus. And at Cleveland's airport — several days after infected nurse Amber Vinson had passed through — passenger[s] were still worried.

Indeed, the panic proved more difficult to contain than the virus itself. Brantly became the first Ebola patient treated in the United States when he arrived on a specially equipped medical transport jet in early August. Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, nurses at a Dallas hospital who treated a victim, contracted the disease in October. They were released later that month after weeks of treatment and assurances that they were Ebola-free. The epidemic continued in West Africa, but fears subsided in the United States as media coverage wavered.

The Ebola epidemic did not officially end until mid-2016, leaving a morbid trail in its wake. WHO estimates detail 28,616 cases of the disease, 11,310 of which were fatal. All cases were linked back to a handful of West African countries, save for the nurses mentioned earlier. Despite the hysteria, no Contagion-esque outbreak occurred in the United States. Within a number of weeks, Ebola became nothing but an afterthought in the public’s collective mind.

Post-panic, most Americans distanced themselves from the crisis, myself included. Ebola was something “they” have to worry about and us Americans don’t. How could an outbreak happen here, given our advanced healthcare and research? Our hospitals and clinics are well-equipped to prevent such an epidemic, and our doctors and nurses follow procedures carefully. It was foolish to worry in the first place, and now everything’s back to normal.

In many ways, these sentiments ring true. We do have an advanced medical system, especially compared to the rudimentary frameworks in place in West Africa. Our medical personnel are well-trained. Hospitals are well-equipped and sterile. Nobody expects large-scale epidemics to happen in the U.S. or other highly-developed nations. But these attitudes are representative of a larger issue: most Americans only care about developing nations when their misfortunes could potentially become ours.

This trend is not new, nor is it surprising. Malaria, for instance, has long been a problem in developing countries, claiming over 400,000 lives in 2015 alone. It remains one of the largest threats to those in countries with unstable healthcare infrastructure. But in the United States, malaria has been eliminated since the 1950s, with fewer than 2,000 cases being reported in years since, mostly surrounding recent travelers. Malaria is nothing but an afterthought for the majority of Americans.

A quick look at Google search trends for Ebola (red) and malaria (blue) show that despite malaria’s continued effects, there is little interest in it. On the other hand, interest in Ebola spiked tremendously in 2014 when there was a perceived threat of its transmission to the United States.

Google search trends of Ebola (red) and malaria (blue) show a remarkable discrepancy between the two, despite malaria being the deadlier disease.

Google search trends of Ebola (red) and malaria (blue) show a remarkable discrepancy between the two, despite malaria being the deadlier disease.

Admittedly, Ebola and malaria are not entirely comparable diseases. Ebola is significantly more deadly once contracted, and malaria is not contagious. But my intention is not to compare the scientific characteristics of each disease — it’s to highlight the differences in our response to them. Ebola posed a threat, however small, to our American way of life. The same cannot be said for malaria or countless other issues that plague developing nations. We hear about global hunger, but to many Americans, “global” just means that it isn’t our problem.

Sure, paying more attention to the plights of developing communities won’t solve the problems. A CNN article describing the most recent viral outbreak in West Africa won’t magically end the crisis, and changing your Facebook profile picture won’t help develop a vaccine. But that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad ideas. Raising awareness is the stepping stone to finding solutions, and it’s unfair to label such an action worthless.

American indifference to global problems is not surprising, nor should it be. A majority of Americans are accustomed to modern, Westernized patterns of development. With few exceptions, U.S. citizens haven’t seen disease and devastation first-hand, and those who have tend to already be aware of the dire situations. But there’s no harm in lending some of our attention to less privileged communities. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of issues that affect hundreds of millions of people on our planet. Perhaps in the future we’ll consider it our responsibility to find solutions to these problems, and not throw them aside once the most recent outbreak ends.