When the West Forgets the Rest

"Photo of Monrovia, Liberia Downtown Monrovia 3348917715 67a2002529" by Erik (HASH) Hershman - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

"Photo of Monrovia, Liberia Downtown Monrovia 3348917715 67a2002529" by Erik (HASH) Hershman - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I intentionally try to avoid controversial topics on my blog. I want this to be a place where people feel refreshed and encouraged - not by some Pollyanna theology, but by focusing on the work Jesus has done for us and the abundant life available to us through him.

But some things get under my skin, and I have to speak out.

The Ebola crisis we are now facing is not a surprise to us at Samaritan’s Purse, but it took two Americans getting the disease in order for the international community and the United States to take notice of the largest outbreak of the disease in history.
— -Ken Isaacs, Vice President of International Programs and Government Relations, Samaritan's Purse, as quoted on CNN Health

Samaritan's Purse , the international Christian charity that employs my husband, began caring for Ebola victims in Liberia weeks ago. My husband received status updates on SP's emergency response. I also received an email from the medical branch, asking me (as part of the group that volunteered with SP in Haiti in response to the cholera epidemic) if I'd be willing to be on stand-by for the medical response in Liberia. I said no, although I'd probably have said yes if I wasn't nursing an infant.

We heard of hundreds of people falling ill and dying. Yet when I scanned the big news agencies - BBC, CNN, NBC - no one was reporting on the Ebola outbreak.

If you happened to click over to the Africa page, you might see a brief report. But the media was not paying attention. They were far more concerned with Iraq, Israel, and Oscar Pistorius' trial in South Africa.

I told Andrew angrily, "No one is paying attention to Africa, because no one thinks it's a big deal that Africans are dying of disease. Africans die all the time; it will take a white person dying before people start to pay attention."

Then Kent Brantley, a physician working with SP, contracted Ebola, and people started paying attention. 

Please hear me clearly: I am not saying that Americans, as a whole, don't care about Africans. But the international media have shown a long history of focusing on sensational stories and ignoring what threatens the lives of millions in developing countries.

This spring, the issue also rose to the surface when CNN reported on the missing Malaysian Airlines plane for days on end, following rabbit trails and red herrings, all the while ignoring news of mass slaughters by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Of course, Boko Haram did catch their attention when they kidnapped a couple hundred school girls.

But where is that in the news today?

(Rachel Pieh Jones wrote a fabulous article on this issue you should read - "CNN's Malaysia Air 370 Coverage: When is Enough, Enough?")

What strikes me is that the media often ignores news of blatant injustice, for the sake of the sensational story.

Ebola did not start making international waves until two white Americans fell ill with it. And now people are paying attention. 

Hundreds of Africans dying of a preventable disease was not breaking news; two Americans getting sick made headlines.

I think part of it is our tendency to ignore the distant threat. But Ebola is a real threat to thousands of West Africans. And it can easily impact Americans if it crosses the ocean via backpackers, missionaries, immigrants, and businessmen.

And even if it doesn't, we should still pay attention.

"School destroyed by Sierra Leone Civil War" by Laura Lartigue. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

"School destroyed by Sierra Leone Civil War" by Laura Lartigue. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This disease is ripping apart families. Those who fall ill must be isolated from their loved ones to prevent the spread of disease. Hundreds of Africans have died alone in isolation wards, their bodies failing as they slowly bleed to death.

And the crazy thing is, the disease is so easy to prevent: isolate those sick and those exposed, wash your hands, and stay away from a sick or dead person's body fluids.

Ken Isaacs went on to say that if the world had paid attention to the outbreak and helped the African nations taken action more effectively, potentially hundreds of lives could have been saved.

What's even more sad? As I talked with my dad about this issue, he pointed out - how many children in Liberia die of malaria every day? How many die of diarrheal diseases? Why is it that Westerners have become so immune to those stories, yet get into a flurry of righteous indignation when they read a story of a girl being trafficked for sex, or an American contracting an African disease?

So what do I want you to do about it?

I want you to understand the bigger picture. It's so easy to swallow whatever the media tells you is The Big Story of the night. But the catastrophe of the Ebola outbreak lies within a greater tragedy of lives lost every year over preventable diseases.

It is incredibly unjust that Westerners live such abundantly healthy lives with access to good medical care - even without regard for cost if it's in an emergency - while mothers are unable to protect their children from diseases or offer a healthy future in African nations.

It's also easy for us to get caught up in The Big Issue of the year. Every two or three years, the face of social justice cycles through different issues - AIDS/HIV, malaria, clean water, sex trafficking, and now labor trafficking. In the past few years we have been in Cambodia, we have seen donations towards clean water projects cut drastically, while our friends in the trafficking sector receive more money than they know what to do with.

Why? Because the media has promoted that to ad nauseum, and Westerners think that is the only Big Issue facing people in developing nations.

Helping the world is complicated. The forces holding people back from healthy, prosperous lives are too numerous to count. And the most challenging ones may not be the ones the media tell you about.

So take everything you read in the news with a grain of salt. If you're traveling overseas, ask people what their biggest needs are.

Don't assume you know what they are, just because you've read news stories about their country.

Listen and learn and be humble enough to ask questions. And let your heart be shocked and challenged by the issues that remain long after the spotlight fades.

Does any of this surprise or shock you? How should we move forward in responding to the injustices and inequality that exist between the West and the Rest? Are there any biblical justice issues you'd like to learn more about?

(The New York Times recently published an article explaining how epidemiologists have traced Ebola back to a two-year-old who died in December. As far back as March, aid agencies were warning that Ebola could become a serious threat in West Africa. Read more here.)