Take a crisis happening somewhere in the world, such as a dangerous and infectious disease, bring it closer to the US, add in an election year, throw in radio and TV pundits who seem to get a kick out of making the most bizarre claims with no basis, and that recipe will produce not just fear-based over-reaction, but sheer stupidity. The United States is indeed in danger of a deadly and highly contagious outbreak, but I am not talking about Ebola. I am talking about stupidity based in fear.
Whether it is listening to the questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at their hearing on Ebola this week, or hearing from folks on TV claiming that Ebola was started by the US government, or that President Obama doesn’t care about stopping Ebola in the US because he favors Africa (yeah, I am not sure I get that one either), and you will see some of the worst aspects of US society.
While there is such a tremendous need for building the catastrophe response systems and healthcare systems in many of the affected countries, the one constant refrain I hear as a solution to stop the spread of Ebola is flight bans from West African countries (although I have even heard some say from all African countries). Once again we have a serious issue before us and our elected leaders and media pundits are responding from a protectionist and isolationist position. Build walls or fences, seal borders, arm ourselves to the teeth (and pay out our nose to defense contractors for those overly priced and unnecessary arms), live in gated communities, lock our doors and isolate, isolate, isolate. We have done this before; in fact, all too often.
Before we forget:
- Earlier this year when larger than normal numbers of children were arriving on our southern border fleeing violence from Central American countries, a number of elected leaders and media analysts called for their immediate deportation with no due process and regardless of whether they might be sent back into the violence from which they came.
- In 2005, the House passed H.R. 4437, the anti-immigrant bill that sparked mass protests across the nation. The legislation not only made undocumented status an aggregated felony (it currently is a civil, not a criminal offense), but it also criminalized communities – including faith communities – that offered aid to immigrants.
- And we can go back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings (House Un-American Activities Committee, which actually was not abolished as a committee until 1975).
- Other instances include a number of anti-immigrant bills aimed at Asians in the early 1900s, the PATRIOT Act and other similar suppressive bills in each of the wars fought by the US (going back to the first Alien and Sedition Act passed under President John Adams), the broken treaties and genocide of Native Americans, and of course, the heinous Jim Crow laws put in place following the failed Reconstruction after the Civil War.
The US response to the Ebola crisis seems to be well on its way down the same road, sadly. Banning flights, claiming the US government is hiding information, calls for sealing the southern border because of a baseless fear that ISIS is planning on infecting themselves with Ebola, cross the southern border and then infect everyone they find; all are making the rounds on TV and Capitol Hill and creating panic instead of the strategic planning needed to effectively confront this deadly disease. Throughout the madness you can hear the constant theme (more like scream), batten down the hatches, lock and seal the doors and windows, and keep “them” out until we are safe.
One reason why banning flights is a horrible idea is that the current policy in place includes screening all passengers on flights from affected countries. This screening examines passengers before they leave and after they arrive and quarantines all who have any symptoms of Ebola. Ebola is only contagious when someone exhibits symptoms. This allows us to know who is travelling, from where they are coming, and where they are landing. This is precisely why we have isolated cases of Ebola in the US and not an outbreak.
If we ban all flights from West African countries it would be easy for someone from one of those countries to fly to another country with no flight ban and then to fly, undetected and unknown, to the US. Banning flights would actually accomplish what we are trying to defeat. And banning flights does nothing to build the infrastructure in impacted countries, train doctors and nurses, or other important work to stop the spread and effectively treat those currently affected, all of which should be of highest importance right now.
The protectionism seen throughout history and now in the Ebola crisis is natural. When real threats present themselves, it is normal to shrink back and be protectionist. But this does not mean it is smart. And it certainly does not mean it is missional either. Taking even a cursory look at the gospels we see Jesus engaging not isolating:
- In John 4, Jesus intentionally travels into Samaria – a no-no for most pious Jews of his day, and then interacting with the woman at the well from a position of need making a request for her help, not dictating what she must do to be saved,
- In Luke 8, Jesus, walking in the midst of a crowd to an important religious leader’s house to heal his daughter, stops to heal – physically and socially – a woman afflicted with a disease that has likely caused her years of shame and social marginalization,
- And in John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind while his disciples and others seem content to discuss philosophical questions on the origin of his "sin."
In the midst of blatant fear-mongering and the stupidity that arises from it the Church can have a real impact. In addition to the direct service to those currently infected – and the example of Dr. Kent Brantly should not go unnoticed. Dr. Brantly is the Christian doctor who was infected with Ebola while serving patients in Liberia and now, after being cured, has offered his blood to those with Ebola. We can offer ourselves as well, including:
- We can call our elected leaders and demand an end to the fear-mongering for the sake of political gamesmanship. We can ask our officials what they are doing to build the infrastructures and repair the healthcare systems in the affected countries and ask them to focus on these efforts.
- We can educate our congregations to the factual ways in which Ebola is transmitted and pray for the Church in affected countries, and supporting ministries such as UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) who are doing all they can to stop the spread of Ebola.
- And long term, we can ask that our foreign policy be based more on the need to protect the human rights of all people – especially those whose voices are not able to pay high-priced lobbyists when it comes time to pass budgets (as seen in 2013 when the budget for the Center for Disease Control was cut by $770 million – don’t we wish we had that money back!) rather than just protect US interests alone.