Editorial — The fear factor

Fear is a real and incredible thing.

In some people it can produce a reservoir of courage they didn’t know they had. In others it can result in the suspension of common sense.

Ebola is a disease to be feared; there can be little doubt of that. The numbers in West Africa should be enough to raise concern about the disease, even in the U.S. But despite the fear-mongering of various news outlets, Ebola should not lead to the suspension of reason, as it apparently has in some places.

There are those in Maine, politicians mostly, who want a courageous nurse to quarantine herself. She spent time in Sierra Leone treating others who had the disease, and when she returned to the U.S. she had a fever. Now she is symptom-free and isn’t contagious — she’s never had Ebola.

Examining travelers who enter the country from the three West African nations ravaged by the epidemic makes sense. So does taking precaution and preparing to treat the few cases that may reveal themselves in the U.S. But we should not let media and politician-driven rumors overwhelm reason, as it has apparently done in Maine.

All of us need to help, when and where we can, those people who are doing their best to halt the epidemic in West Africa. Some of those people are from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Their bravery — they come face-to-face with the disease — is yet another reason we should all be proud to call ourselves members of the Catholic Church.

They have, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson, kept their fears to themselves and shared their courage with others.

In addition to bringing medical care to those in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, CRS workers are making sure the dead in Sierra Leone at least have what an agency official called “safe and dignified” burials.

According to the Catholic News Service (CNS), nearly 5,000 people in the three West African nations have died during this, the worst Ebola outbreak on record. In many African nations, there is a ritual that involves a family washing the body of their dead loved one. Many people have contracted the disease through this ritual, so officials have banned it.

Michael Stulman, regional information officer for CRS, told the news service that his agency will ensure safe burials, and that graves are marked so families know where their loved ones are buried. They will also make certain that there is “one body in one grave,” he said. During the current crisis, CNS reported, that hasn’t always been the case.

Ebola is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person; it is not, health officials say, an airborne disease.

Nevertheless, working in an area where such a dangerous hemorrhagic disease is prevalent takes more than a little courage and a great deal of care and caution. The CRS workers have the courage, are prepared for the risk. But most importantly, they are living the Gospel call.

“A sacred ritual has been taken away,” Stulman told CNS in reference to the body washing. “And while most people understand the severity of the disease, there is a reluctance to change behavior, particularly regarding burials.”

CRS has created burial teams that respond as quickly as possible to the households where someone has died, and they have the resources needed to protect themselves from infection, Stulman said.

Their courage and commitment shines in stark contrast with the character of some political leaders in Sierra Leone, who, according to the New York
Times, will not allow medical supplies to be unloaded at docks until bribes are paid.

The newspaper noted that one shipping container filled with $140,000 in medical supplies has been sitting on a dock in Freetown for more than four months. Hundreds of people have died while the unscrupulous ones are waiting for their money.

At the same time, Pope Francis is pleading with the international community to take stronger steps to, in his words, “annihilate” the virus.

At his weekly general audience on Oct. 29, the pope offered his prayers and solidarity with the sick, with the doctors, nurses, volunteers, religious orders and humanitarian agencies “working heroically to help our sick brothers and sisters.”

And Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, a health adviser for Caritas Internationalis, said his agency echoes the pope’s urgent call to action.

“This is a shattering emergency,” he told Catholic News Service. “We need to strengthen the response of Caritas and our collaboration with other Catholic Church organizations as quickly as possible.”

Msgr. Vitillo also said those reacting to the epidemic should “respond to the global reactions of panic and of stigmatizing that are directed at West Africans, migrants from the region and even returning health care volunteers.” In other words, he wants us to make sure that our fear of this disease doesn’t overwhelm our compassion.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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