What Should We Do About Ebola?

You have probably noticed how Ebola has slipped from the headlines in the West. We are currently more interested in IS, Russia and the spectre of another recession. It doesn’t mean Ebola has gone away, or that we are any less involved in terms of money and personnel, but our perception of the immediacy of the crisis has somehow lessened. Unless or until another person with Ebola is hospitalised in the West, we shall continue to think of the virus as something that affects people ‘over there’ — and our thinking about how to help will follow suit.

There have been sobering reports that Western aid is missing the mark. Julia Duncan-Cassell, Liberia’s Chief of Development, is on record as saying neighbours and relatives are struggling to care for thousands of Ebola orphans while Western aid workers enjoy a lavish lifestyle and spend money on projects that are of little benefit. That kind of statement feeds into a very Western fear that aid agencies and charities do not always use the money given to them wisely or even appropriately. On the whole, if I may be permitted a very large generalisation, the religiously-inspired charities seem to do a better job than most, but still there is anxiety. How do we help? How do we ensure that money given to aid people suffering so greatly actually does what we intend? What should we do? I have no answers, but part of me thinks the very Benedictine approach of listening to the community might be a good starting-point. We may think building another treatment centre is the priority (and heaven knows, they are needed!) but for those who have been orphaned, or who have lost children on whom they depend for support, the need for food, shelter and companionship is just as urgent. It may not seem as urgent to us, but there is a future beyond Ebola we must think about and work to protect.

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A Sleepless Night and a Good Night

After a certain age, sleepless nights become commonplace. We may lie awake pondering the awfulness of Ebola and the sluggish international response; or we may toss and turn over some more immediate, personal problem concerning family or finances. I wonder how many of us, however, register the sounds of night-time. Here in the country, where traffic slows almost to a stop, the soft soughing of the wind and the snuffles and shrieks of small creatures mean that the night is never completely silent. The nocturnal soundscape has its moments of violence—the high-pitched bark of the vixen or the scream of the rabbit caught by a predator are not easily forgotten— but the general impression is of life proceeding purposefully on its course. Our lying awake is part of that process, not to be resisted or fought against, nor always to be filled with displacement activity (think, cups of tea and the radio). In Christian tradition, the night hours are specially privileged times of prayer. They form a kind of desert moment in our busy lives. Peter of Celles loved the long winter nights when he could give himself more completely to seeking God without the interruptions of business or people. We can all learn from him. Whether sleeping soundly (no barriers to God) or lying awake watchfully (keeping vigil), we can still claim to have had a good night. The important thing is to have allowed God some share in it.

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Radioactive Concrete, the Threat of Ebola and Fear

News that a ship laden with radioactive concrete is adrift in the North Sea and making for the Firth of Forth just about sums up the way in which our solutions to one problem tend to create others. Add in the unpredictability of wind and tide, and it is easy to see why some people want to retreat to a pre-industrial world of presumed safety and security in which there is no need for radioactive material to exist, let alone be disposed of. The truth is, of course, that there never has been a safe and secure world, if by safe and secure we mean one in which there is no risk, no danger, no possibility of disaster. As the Ebola epidemic begins to touch the lives of those of us in the West, we are forced to admit that we remain very vulnerable despite all our technological and medical advances. Nature has a way of slipping past our puny pitchforks.

Whether we face a deadly virus like Ebola or a shipload of radioactive material, fear can make us behave foolishly, sometimes even cruelly. Put baldly, we try to run away, either literally or metaphorically, abandoning others in our flight. We try to put a good gloss on it, of course, with our talk of being sensible or taking prudent precautions, but, deep down, we know that we are allowing fear to dictate our conduct. At the same time, such challenges can lead to acts of great selflessness and courage. I don’t know much about those dealing with the Pirada, but the number of doctors and nurses who have volunteered in this country alone to help try to stem the tide of Ebola is heart-warming. Those of us who lack their skills must salute their bravery and do what we can to support them — with our money, our prayer and our concern for their families. That is our role. A single shipload of radioactive concrete may be unlikely to do very much damage; we already know what Ebola can do and can guess at the rest.

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