Ebola, compassion, and what we stand to lose (or gain)

Have you ever seen an elderly lady take a hard fall? I have. And it ain’t pretty. I was rushing through the East Village on a Friday afternoon, trying to make it to the bank before they closed. Several good neighbors circled around the fallen woman. We got her back on her feet, each balancing a limb.

The lady insisted that she was OK. I was unconvinced and asked where she was going. It was my way of checking whether she was all there. She answered that she needed a carton of milk. Before I could ask a follow-up question, she asked, “Could you take me to get one?”

Slightly embarrassed, I looked around at the others. My mind flashed, Come on, lady. The bank closes in 20 minutes. But how could I say no? I sheepishly nodded and replied “Sure, I can take you.” And off we went.

Barbara and I walked the four and a half blocks to the bodega, arm-in-arm, at a slug’s pace. As we inched up 4th Avenue, we had a lot of time for conversation. She was 82 years old and her husband, a famous New York sculptor, died 14 years ago from cancer. She invited me to see his studio, which she has preserved in the exact condition he left it. I told her that I’d love to see the studio someday. Of course, she insisted that we’d be going directly after we got the milk.

As Barbara took the milk from the store’s cooler I noticed that she grabbed her wrist in pain. “Chid,” she cried out, “I think I’d better go to the emergency room.”

I told her I’d hail a taxi, but she refused. Her husband always liked to take taxis but he wasn’t good with money, she asserted. She walks and takes the subway everywhere, that’s how she built their small fortune. She instructed that we’d first walk back to her apartment so she could grab her insurance card. Then we’d go down to the third floor to see her husband’s studio. Then, if I really felt like splurging, I could get a taxi and take her to the emergency room; but she was fine walking the sixteen blocks.

After four and a half hours in the emergency room with Barbara that night, we finally said goodbye. That was almost two years ago. We still see each other often. She gives me investment advice and I tell her about my travels throughout Africa. It’s pretty weird, as a 35 year old Liberian-American man, to have a friend who’s an 82 year old white lady from Kansas. But it works. She doesn’t have any children and she’s getting to that age where it’s useful to have me around, here and there. Our friendship is a byproduct of good ol’ American kindness.

The first person to die from Ebola Virus Disease on U.S. soil was Thomas Eric Duncan. Mr. Duncan flew from Liberia to Dallas, Texas in good health. He was headed to rekindle his long-lost love, with whom he had a son. They had plans to marry and live as a family; three of them, happily ever after.

A few days before his departure from Liberia he came across a neighbor in dire need of medical attention. Duncan did what I hope most of us would do. The neighbor was pregnant and seemed to be suffering from labor complications. The Ebola crisis has made it extremely difficult to get medical care in Liberia, even for childbirth.

Mr. Duncan visited several Liberian hospitals and clinics with his neighbors that day. None would take the pregnant woman. They were all filled beyond capacity with Ebola patients. At some point, Mr. Duncan helped carry her out of the taxi and back into her home where she would later die.

Normally, Duncan would be seen as a Good Samaritan; someone who loved his neighbor as himself. But he passed away facing threats of criminal prosecution in Dallas and Liberia, specifically for his kindness that fateful day. It turns out that while Duncan was on his way to America, his neighbor was diagnosed with Ebola, post mortem. Authorities believed Duncan lied on his exit interview at the Liberian airport as he didn’t declare that he’d been in contact with an Ebola patient. But it appears he had no idea he’d been exposed to the virus. He only knew he’d been witness to a fatal birthing complication in a country with the eighth highest maternal mortality rate on earth. He was a good neighbor that stepped in where the health system failed. We should all be so generous.

Duncan first began experiencing a fever on September 24th in Dallas. He first went to the emergency room on September 26th and clocked a temperature of 103 degrees. The medical team sent him home with antibiotics and told him to take Tylenol. His Ebola symptoms were misdiagnosed. Duncan was readmitted into emergency care a few days later with dramatically more severe symptoms. This time he was properly diagnosed, but did not get a blood transfusion — something all other Ebola patients treated in the USA have received.

There are several reasons, I’m sure, Mr. Duncan might not have received the same level of care as Kent Brantly, Nancy Writebol, Rick Sacra, and now Ashoka Mukpo. Duncan, for instance, did not contract Ebola while in Liberia on official business for a powerful organization like Samaritan’s Purse or NBC. 

But suspicion about the care Duncan received might not be unfounded. He differed from the other Ebola patients treated on American soil in both nationality and race. It should be noted that Duncan’s medical team contacted Kent Brantly to provide blood for a transfusion, but never followed up. All the other Ebola patients who were treated in the USA, who happen to be American and white, have received blood transfusions and survived or are currently in recovery.

I have a hard time with the way in which Thomas Eric Duncan was characterized in the American media. He wasn’t a deceitful man. That should not be his legacy. He displayed a generosity of spirit that we should all aspire to. As I did when I first met Barbara, Duncan simply reacted to a neighbor in need. The only difference is that my neighbor was a wealthy white woman in Manhattan and his was a Liberian victim of a failing health system during an Ebola crisis.

Ebola is a predator that feeds on love and compassion. It preys on our need to hold our sick child and comfort our injured neighbor. Like many of us, I’ve wished and prayed Ebola away. I’ve donated money. I’ve organized.

And Ebola continues to grow exponentially. Some days I decide it’s all too much and I need to take a break. And Ebola continues to grow exponentially.

Ebola is not at war with our bodies, it’s at war with the very nature of our human spirit: Love.

Some are recommending we close our borders in an attempt to keep the crisis across the Atlantic. But it’s becoming clear that as long as there are thousands dying in West Africa from Ebola, none of us will really live. Ebola anywhere is Ebola everywhere. The virus has this way of sneaking into your life. It infects us all, one way or another. As Dr. King wrote, 'We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’

It’s time for the global community to acknowledge that our valiant opponent is worthy of our best efforts. Our greatest minds and bravest hearts are needed to combat the spread of this disease. In the end, it’s a fight we must win. In the name of Love, we cannot lose.


Social Innovation Rockstar (SIR ) and Yoxi collaborator Chid Liberty is CEO of Liberty & Justice, the first Fair Trade-certified apparel producer in all of Africa. L&J's worker-owned factories create jobs for African women ‘at the base of the pyramid’.