Caring only when it's 'about you'

Here’s my mea culpa.

When I was about 4 or so, my mother got these dolls for me and my little sister, Joy. Dressed in nothing but a diaper and a hospital ID bracelet, the dolls were supposed to be newborns and their rough, plastic skin was all wrinkled to drive home the point. I thought they looked sickly, and I promptly named mine Ebola Baby.

I wasn’t trying to be insensitive. I mean, I was a child; I used to also press down on one side of Ebola Baby’s head (plastic, you know) and call her Bobby Brown Baby. Social graces come with age.

But still, as a more socially conscious and compassionate adult, when I read about the current Ebola crisis, I remember Ebola Baby with an acute sense of shame. It probably sounds ridiculous, but part of me wants to issue some kind of apology to the world on behalf of my former self, this insensitive child version of me who thought a fatal disease was a joke. So, if it matters in any cosmic sense, world, I am deeply sorry.

The thing about Ebola that strikes a nerve – the thing about any disease, really – is that it peels back so many layers of tension and injustice. Disease brings into sharp focus just who, exactly, are the haves and the have-nots in this world – a theme Melanie Lidman touches on in her Global Sisters Report piece about Catholic sisters fighting Ebola in Liberia. This isn’t anything new, but the world is different, and so the way we think and talk about these things is different, too. 

For months, my Facebook newsfeed has been peppered with links to satirical pieces poking fun at racialized fears of Ebola in the U.S. More recently, I’ve been seeing outrage that the two white Ebola patients treated in the U.S. recovered from the disease, while the one black patient died. Not all of the arguments have been well-informed, and some have been downright off the mark, but I think it’s interesting that we’ve moved to a place where even the average Facebook user is talking about disease as a social justice issue.

Don’t get me wrong, some circles have long thought about disease this way – but that’s not how disease and medical resources have historically been viewed by most people. And especially not in the United States. In fact, in another article making the Facebook rounds, journalist Sophie Kleeman draws out in exacting detail just how little Westerners thought about Ebola at all until recently.

“According to Google Trends, which tracks the popularity of specific topics in the news,” Kleeman writes, “the world only really started paying attention to the Ebola epidemic when it involved patients in the U.S.”

It’s not unreasonable, Kleeman continues, that Western media would highlight Ebola threats in the West, but the way that news was consumed by Americans – beating out news of the Hong Kong protests, corruption in the Secret Service and the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS – represents something deeper, she says.

“It doesn't matter that West Africa has now lost more than 3,400 people to the disease,” she writes. “It is, and always will be, all about us.”

But the very fact that Kleeman’s article is so popular on Facebook is itself a sign that such self-centeredness could be changing, a sign that more and more people are starting to think through the sociology of disease as a justice issue.

When the Internet forces stories and images in your face, it’s much more difficult to ignore what’s happening in the world – and I think we’re inching, slowly but surely, toward a place where we can see global connections, where we can understand the justice roots of current events like an Ebola outbreak on the other side of the world.  

I’m optimistic. And that’s coming from a girl with “Ebola Baby” in her lexicon. 

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is the staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]

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