Lifeboat Ethics, Ebola and Borders

Lifeboat Ethics, Ebola and Borders

The Ebola outbreak (or pandemic, if you prefer) has generated an avalanche of news, very little of it good.

But even Ebola must yield, at least occasionally. We get a few wins in the midst of this hard-fought fight.

We recently learned that freelance news videographer Ashoka Mukpo and Spanish nurse María Teresa Romero Ramos are now Ebola-free.

The World Health Organization (in need of a little good news organizationally) announced that several experimental Ebola vaccines will begin to be tested in West Africa by January of next year.

Oh . . . and the dog owned by Dallas nurse Nina Pham (who is still battling Ebola) has tested negative for Ebola so far.

What is hard not to notice is how much different the Ebola stories are in the United States and Europe than they are in West Africa.

In the United States and Europe, despite all the hype and fear-mongering, Ebola has been managed (so far) with few fatalities and very little spread. In West Africa, however, with the exception of the extraordinarily good news from Nigeria, Ebola is a disaster of extraordinary proportions, without any near-term promise of reversal.

It is in this context that I have been watching the news about large-scale efforts of people from Morocco to cross over into Europe through Spain.

Fences and border guards used to be things we associated with totalitarian regimes intent upon keeping their citizens in.

Now, democratic regimes are using similar tactics (perhaps not identical, but certainly similar) to keep the citizens of other nations out.

Why have these democracies concluded that they need to ‘secure the borders’ with walls, fences, and armed guards?

Because there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people from more impoverished countries who see opportunity and hope across those borders.

What Ebola has provided is a pair of visuals to prompt some reflection on our handling of this vast have/have not distinction between nations.

We can treat the threat of Ebola (and global poverty, and hunger, and illiteracy, and . . .) like we have the only lifeboat, and it’s already overloaded. We can beat off drowning victims to save our sorry skins.

Or we can see ourselves as the fleet coming to the rescue, with ample rescue vessels and crew to end the tragedy.

Yes, there’s real risk in this latter approach. With Ebola in particular, medical professionals, caring volunteers, and some members of our Armed Forces are and will be most at risk. They also are the ones who will provide the rescue, not only of those struggling nations in West Africa, but of our own nation, by fighting the spread of Ebola and helping find a cure or at least more effective treatment, saving more lives and building up our ‘herd immunity’ by saving those lives.

The question is whether we, as a nation, will choose to embrace this call to arms . . . or simply pretend we can protect ourselves without meeting the needs of others.

But whether we’re talking about a pandemic or poverty, we’re likely to find that the one lifeboat we all share is Earth.