What Can NGOs Learn From the West's Response to Ebola?

A "Sexy Ebola Costume" is a dumb joke, but it's also part of a broader attitude.
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Image by Josh McDonald

$59.99 is the current price for a novelty "Sexy Ebola Costume," including a "short dress and chic gas mask." The "hazmat couture" couples costume costs a little more.

$116 is the amount Zidane Konneh had saved up working as a mechanic in Sierra Leone before he contracted Ebola. The cash, the mattress he stored it in, and all of his possessions were burned by cautious neighbors while he fought for his life in the local hospital. Thirty-eight members of his family died of the disease. He and the few that survived are now feared and outcast from their community. In recent interviews with Al Jazeera, Konneh and others spoke about post-Ebola health effects including impotence, chronic pain, and blindness.

A "Sexy Ebola Costume" is a dumb joke, but it's also part of a broader attitude. A numbness to suffering across oceans and through TV screens. The Global North's response to the Ebola crisis says a lot about its relationship to the Global South. Any organization that seeks to mobilize action on global inequality should be taking notes.

The Terrorism of Poverty

Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are rich in natural resources -- rubber, precious metals, diamonds -- yet economically, they're some of the poorest countries on the planet, lacking even the most basic health infrastructure. One resource critically low at many of the hospitals battling Ebola is food. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health recently called it "the terrorism of poverty":

"This isn't a natural disaster... there's a reason the case fatality rate is 80 percent in rural Africa and 0 percent in Americans and Europeans who get out in time and get proper medical care."

Farmer delivered this same warning nearly 20 years ago in a Harvard Medical Journal:

"Social inequalities have sculpted not only the distribution of emerging diseases but also the course of disease in those affected by them... Ebola outbreaks affect certain people... people living in poverty and those who serve the poor."

A complex history of colonialism, civil war, exploitation, and failed development policy has led to this tragedy, but the result is painfully simple: where you are born determines your chances of survival.

The Fear Is Worse...

In a tense few days last Fall, Americans truly felt the fear of a domestic outbreak. We held our breath as our medical facilities were put to the test. A two-week flurry of media coverage descended on a handful of American cases, bringing a new level of attention to an epidemic that had already killed thousands.

Amid overdue calls for action, there were nearly as many calls to calm down. Countless articles like The Daily Beast's "Ebola Panic Is Worse Than the Disease" made our perspective painfully clear. A brief mention of the situation in West Africa, a reassurance that it couldn't get that way here, and the conclusion: we can all relax. The overstated likelihood of a domestic outbreak seemed to inspire more discussion than months of legitimate disaster overseas.

Still, it was this imagined local outbreak, not the images of foreign suffering, that finally mobilized Americans to action.

Dismay of Images

Fifteen years ago, before YouTube or social media, the activist organization Witness was ahead of its time. It had just started the "world's first participatory media site for human rights." This image sharing platform, eventually "The HUB," allowed participants to "see it, film it, change it." It seemed like the perfect tool for leveraging the power of image.

Years into this experiment, CalArts Professor Maggie Nelson dissected the site in The Art of Cruelty:

"I find the smorgasbord of human suffering offered on [the] site repellent. Not because 'it is difficult to look' (though sometimes, of course, it is), but because the physical and mental activity of Web surfing, which consists of rapid image flow, the distillation of long, complex stories and situations to 2-inch-high, four-minute snippets, one-click decision-making, happenstance isolations, juxtapositions, and linkages that have an eerily leveling effect on content and context, is, in my experience an exceptionally poor means by which to contemplate the horrors of human trafficking, child prostitution, landmines, and the like."

In an article on the "Dismay of Images," anthropologists Joan and Arthur Kleinman discussed this desensitizing flow of information:

"Viewers are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of atrocities. There is too much to see, and there appears to be too much to do anything about. [The feeling] that complex problems can be neither understood nor fixed ... produce[s] moral fatigue, exhaustion of empathy, and political despair."

In 2011, "The Hub" stopped accepting new content.

A New Challenge

This epidemic is not over and has already produced some of the most powerful pictures and staggering statistics the world has known. Liquefied internal organs. Graphs showing exponential rates of infection, threatening at one point to reach 1.4 million by January. Invaluable time constantly slipping away. Hospitals overflowing with patients, turning away pregnant women and dying children.

If these haunting images were not enough to mobilize a necessary response, we need to shift our focus.

We need new ways to inspire empathy. Images and statistics are powerful tools, but their power lies in the stories they tell. The pendulum has swung too far toward distilled image, away from context. The challenge, as Kleinman sees it, is to reframe our discussions so that "social forces are made to relate to biography and local history."

Though action is needed urgently, context is understood with time, personal investment, and room for emotion. If we are overwhelmed by the range of images and statistics, we need to take that time to scale down--as organizations, activists, and communities--to learn about the human behind an image, the experience of being counted among statistics. To share more than a picture, discuss more than a number.

How do we realize justice in a world where the lives of the poor hinge on the decisions of the rich? Asking each other may be a good start.

Nathan Albright is the Community Discourse Coordinator at Nourish International.

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