On Ebola & Empathy

You may be thinking to yourself ‘WTF?! This blog is about gender issues! This chick ain’t a biology major! What the heck?!’

WTF

And I totally get that reaction. But be patient, stick with me, and I will bring it all back to feminism.

News broke this week that a man living in NYC is at Bellvue being treated for Ebola. The New York Times gives a detailed account of the situation, about how this man was a doctor who’d gone to Africa to treat patients of this deadly virus and how he’d had a check up right away upon returning to the US and about how he didn’t think his safety gear had been compromised but that he was vigilant about monitoring his temperature and that as soon as he saw a fever he reached out to the authorities and also about how the virus isn’t contagious until you are symptomatic and about how his girlfriend is also quarantined and also his friends. Mostly, it’s a sad story because viruses are scary and over 50% of people that get this disease die from it, and this guy was trying to help.

At yet. The reaction from my fellow New Yorkers has been, well, disgusting and deeply disappointing. I’ve seen folks posting things on Facebook about how they hate this man, about how he was such an asshole for going places in the city. How dare he want to do fun things with his friends after his altruistic and probably emotionally devastating trip?! I’ve also seen posts saying we all need to get hazmat suits and never go bowling ever again and OMG IT DISRUPTED CMJ THE HORROR.

thehorror

So, I’m not gonna pretend to be super knowledgable about the science, but everything I’ve heard and read assures me that this disease isn’t airborne and that in the US we have almost zero chance of being infected. Here, read this, it’s an excellent summary of the outbreak and the science of the virus. I’m not interested in debating conspiracy theories or the validity of stocking up on hand sanitizer, but if this guy didn’t spit in your mouth recently, then you are going to be fucking fine.

fine

UPDATE: Here is the main man himself, Barack, Mr Prez, hitting you with some fun facts about the situation. PS I could listen to this man talk all day. Swag. Science.

Em k, so how about, rather than attacking a man who left this country to go help a population that is actually being affected by the epidemic, we flex our empathy muscles. I happen to think that empathy is a radical feminist tool, that creates bridges and understanding, and has the power to undermine the ‘us/them’ worldview that creates too much distance and hate between peoples. I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that much of the coverage of this outbreak, the fear mongering and comparison to ISIS as a threat, is all thinly veiled code for racism and fear of black and brown peoples. Best internet comment on this phenomenon: ‘Which is the bigger threat, the brown people with a virus or the brown people wielding our cast off weapons? And the answer is, unsurprisingly: Brown People!’ It’s also a red herring given the other ‘threats’ to Americans that are more dangerous, more deadly, and closer to home.

jessicawracist

So I ask: What good does it do anyone to wring their hands and fret and say mean shit about this guy and his family? I imagine it’s devastating to the folks who love him, and to the patients he cares for. And what about the thousands who’ve died across the ocean? Is it cool for us to make jokes about the disease from leagues away, ensconced in relative safety? To yell and shout about how we should close the airports so those people stay over there. That kind of thinking does not align with the values of social justice or equality. Equality without empathy is impossible. Putting up walls between groups of people will only ever keep power in the hands of the few and not the many. It will strengthen and uphold the status quo. Only closeness, understanding, and true compassion will set us all free.

louis-ck-1  louis-ck-2 

 I wonder if instead it would be possible to actually imagine what it would be like, if your family and your community was ravaged by this plague. What if you had to care for those you loved, with near certainty that they would die and that you would get sick in the process. I wonder if we could all take a moment to remember a time that we were scared for ourselves or a loved one, and use that memory to generate some compassion for the people that this is truly affecting. Because shrugging it off as a problem that only affects those people over there is really not the best use of your humanity. That thinking creates distance. It keeps a large space between us and them, when really this experience is one that all people can relate to in some way. If your first thought is ‘OMG I hope they close all the borders so it doesn’t spread to America’ and not ‘I hope all parties involved can work together to stem this disaster so no more families must be torn apart’, if you don’t give a shit unless and only if it might affect you, then I’d suggest recallibrating your compassion-meter.

canwestop

It is only by extreme and random luck that we live in a time and place that is largely safe from these kinds of communicable diseases. I don’t think America is super great or superior, but I grew up in a beautiful home with plenty to eat and lots of technology and opportunities to learn, and now I live in my favorite city, and I know that I’ve had help and opportunities that folks born in other places simply do not have access to. This doesn’t make me better than them, and it doesn’t make any of us immune to heartache or disaster. The chances of Ebola spreading outside of Africa, of it actually affecting the life of anyone here, are very very slim. Let’s reroute that hateful energy to send light and love to the folks who are actually living amongst those who are sick, and if you have the resources maybe even give a few bucks to Doctor’s Without Borders or whoever else is doing the real work over there. Blaming Obama, wondering what the CDC is doing, or condemning one of New York’s resident MDs is truly a waste of time and energy. What this crisis needs, and indeed what the world needs, is more empathy generated, more understanding and closeness. Dare to put yourself in their shoes. Dare to care about strangers you have not and will not ever meet. Dare to relate to families that are an ocean away. Dare to give an actual fuck.

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