The World Health Organization has warned that we must urgently scale up efforts to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa. WHO estimates that the rate of new cases will increase from 1,000 to 10,000 per week in the next two months. Though the United States has pledged to build 17 Ebola treatment units, each with 100 beds, not one unit has opened to patients yet, and it’s likely that three times as many beds will be needed. Hundreds of thousands of people may die. And as the epidemic rages in West Africa, the risk of spread to this country increases.
Yet, charitable donations to the cause have been anemic. Americans often have responded benevolently in the wake of other humanitarian crises. We generously gave our money, aid and supplies to victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and the tsunami in South Asia in 2004. Earlier this year, the ice bucket challenge raised over $100 million in just 30 days for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research. Certainly, some Americans have shown similar empathy for Ebola victims. High-tech tycoons have made large donations to combat the virus: $100 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, $50 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and $25 million from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. But private individuals and organizations have pledged a paltry $10.25 million thus far.
And it’s not just that Americans aren’t donating to fight Ebola. They have directed tremendous animosity at Ebola victims and health-care workers providing humanitarian aid. There’s the predictable hate speech coming from the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Twitter and Facebook are filled with mean-spirited comments like this one:
Across the Internet, comments have disparaged Craig Spencer — the New York City doctor who volunteered with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea and contracted Ebola — and his fiancée Morgan Dixon, branding them “dirty hippies” and inviting harassment by posting their home address. His selflessness should be celebrated as heroic; instead, he’s treated like a villain.
Shortly after Spencer was hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio reported that nurses working there were denied service at restaurants and their children were bullied. In the Bronx, schoolmates assaulted two Senegalese boys and taunted them with the slur “Mr. Ebola”; yet there have been more cases of Ebola in the United States than in Senegal. Businesses owned by West Africans in New York City have seen their customers plummet. In Burlington County, N.J., two students from Rwanda — a country located far from the outbreak in West Africa — were forced to stay home for 21 days. In Lehigh County, Penn., a high school student whose parents still live in Guinea, an Ebola-affected country, was thrown out of a soccer game when he struck opposing players who had yelled “Ebola!” at him. And in Dallas, schools have branded children with African immigrant parents as “Ebola kids.”
Why aren’t Americans making charitable contributions to fight Ebola? It is in Americans’ best interest to donate because containment of the disease in West Africa is key to preventing its spread to the United States. Moreover, why is so much hate directed at those suffering from the deadly virus as well as those coming to their aid?
People want to feel good about their charitable contributions. They want others to think well of them and often bow to social pressure to give to certain causes. They are most likely to give when doing so fosters social connections with others.
But for most, charitable giving for Ebola appears not to inspire these positive feelings. Africa is frightening and alien to some Americans. The politics of Ebola are infused with racism and xenophobia. There’s a perception that somehow Ebola victims are to blame for their disease, and therefore not deserving of assistance. Americans often treat poverty — at the root of the Ebola epidemic — as a moral failing. The problem is overwhelming, and to many, it seems hopeless. Fighting Ebola is about preventing loss of lives — sadly, many will die no matter what we do — a goal more abstract than rebuilding houses or schools. There’s nothing feel-good about Ebola, and so we turn our backs on the victims and aid workers.
I implore Americans: Please give. Please support health-care workers and other fellow citizens who are enlisting in the fight against Ebola in West Africa. You aren’t just helping save lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. You’re also defending this country against spread of Ebola here. Ask your family and friends to do the same. Numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations are fighting Ebola in West Africa. (You can learn more about the track records of these and other organizations at Charity Navigator and GiveWell.) Every one of us has the power to make an impact.
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