Do No Harm: Ebola and the International Community

When I first heard about the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, I thought it was as simple as deciding not to travel there in the near future. I didn’t know much about the virus or how it spreads, and, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I didn’t concern myself too much with it.

Then two Americans who had been working in that part of Africa were brought back to the US to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, GA. I was suddenly more curious, following more stories, hyperlink to hyperlink. Were Americans at risk for this? Is there a cure for Ebola? What would happen to these two patients and to their medical team?

It strikes me as I write this that it’s a confession, of sorts: I paid less attention when the virus didn’t seem very close to me, but the sudden arrival of two patients with the virus made me sit up and notice. There is much that is wrong with that from the perspective of public justice, but I’ll get there in a moment.

According to The Washington Post, the patients were flown in via “air ambulance,” landing first in Maine and then going on to Atlanta. They were brought to the Emory hospital which has “a special isolation unit that was created with the CDC to provide treatment for patients who encounter certain infectious diseases. This facility is separated from the other patient areas and is incredibly isolated, according to Emory.”

On Friday the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Ebola “has now killed 961 people and sickened 1,779 others. It's on track to sicken more than all of the previous outbreaks combined.”

I then read a piece in The Washington Post by a nurse at Emory University Hospital which made me rethink my previous postures towards the crisis. She writes, “But beyond that, the public alarm overlooks the foundational mission of the U.S. medical system. The purpose of any hospital is to care for the ill and advance knowledge about human health. At Emory, our education, research, dedication and focus on quality — essentially everything we do — is in preparation to handle these types of cases.”

I hadn’t realized that I had been alarmed by the arrival of the Ebola patients until her article forced me to consider why I had become more interested and more concerned, not when the number of infected countries rose from 1 to 6, but when two patients arrived in my country.

The article goes on, “Ebola won’t become a threat to the general public from their presence in our facility, but the insight we gain by caring for them will prepare us to better treat emergent diseases that may confront the United States in the future. We also can export our new knowledge to treat Ebola globally. This pathogen is part of our world, and if we want eradicate these types of potentially fatal diseases before they reach our shores uncontrolled, we have to contribute to the global research effort. Today, diseases do not stay contained to one city, country or even continent.”

Public justice demands that we consider community regularly: to think of ourselves as part of something, bound to something. And often it is our town, our state, our country. But in these cases, diseases know no dotted map lines demarcating one place from another - and we ought not to allow physical distance to make us think that we are exempt from caring for and about the problem. And so public justice demands that I welcome not only fellow citizens home to the US for treatment, but that I pray regularly for ways that our knowledge about the disease might be shared with those nations who lack our infrastructure.

The WHO suggested that the international community not stop all travel and trade with the affected countries, but instead that all involved would take necessary and recommended precautions against further outbreaks of the disease. I take this as a part of the reminder that the affected countries are part of that international community and will remain so, even as we seek to mitigate the outbreaks of the deadly virus. Continuing to trade with these countries and engage them economically and politically is a way that we help; but it is also a way that we remember that these countries are not strangers but partners.

The “do no harm” mantra in medicine has too often to me seemed to permit inaction - as long as I am refraining from a harmful action, aren’t I fulfilling it? But what about the harm of ignorance? The harm of an isolationist approach, the harm of public alarm at those two patients landing here for treatment? Those harms are harms of inaction - of not learning the news, of not searching and seeking for ways to see affected countries as partners and neighbors, of not trying to understand why we need not panic at the arrival of those patients. So “do no harm” is here a mandate to action. Do no harm becomes, do good.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog: chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.