In the past few months, the world has witnessed the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976 — it has already claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. But while the first cases in the U.S. and Spain have stirred fears over the past week, we don’t need to fear an unstoppable epidemic in developed countries. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim aptly put it in a piece for the Huffington Post:
The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.
Dr. Kim makes the crucial point here — the current Ebola outbreak is much more than a public health crisis — it is an inequality crisis. People dying of Ebola in West Africa did not choose to be born in West Africa, any more than I chose to be born in the United States or my wife chose to be born in England. The Scriptures remind us time and again of our obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the sick. Accordingly, it is clearly our duty as Christians to do everything we can for the people suffering from this epidemic. Combatting the current outbreak is important beyond saving lives in the short term; the World Bank estimates that the economic cost in terms of lost growth that Ebola could cause in West Africa could rise into the tens of billions of dollars. Such a scenario would make inequality between this region and the developed world even worse — making it that much more difficult for nations like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone to experience the economic development that will be needed to reduce the likelihood and severity of future epidemics.
So fighting Ebola means much more than simply sending funding, medicine, and personnel to West Africa to contain the outbreak. This new epidemic should re-focus us on reducing the inequality between the global North and the global South that allows crises like this one to keep happening in the developing world. We need to remain committed to dramatically reducing extreme poverty and hunger, supporting a healthy civil society in developing nations, and helping to build the long-term infrastructure that will allow the global South to effectively combat and contain future epidemics.
The reason to do this is not because Ebola threatens our countries as well — as Dr. Kim says, we have the tools to contain the outbreak. Rather, we need to commit to reducing global inequality because Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and there are no national, cultural, or economic boundaries for our definition of “neighbor.” This is clearly shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which Jesus tells in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Just as the Samaritan crossed all kinds of boundaries and took all sorts of risks to help someone in need, so must we commit to helping our neighbors in West Africa and everywhere in the developing world — so that future generations may inherit a world with far less inequality than the one we live in today. The Ebola crisis should be an opportunity renew and revitalize our commitment to ending massive inequality.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided , the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.
Image: Ebola precautions taken in Guinea, © EC/ECHO / Flickr.com