Sting, Bono, Boy George and a handful of other 1980s pop stars crooned “Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” 30 years ago to raise money for famine victims in Africa. That memorable refrain was meant to be metaphorical; Africa is home to millions of Christians.
This year, it’s a valid query in Sierra Leone. The West African country has banned Christmas celebrations to keep large groups of people from congregating. It’s not a war on Christmas, but on Ebola.
Although the media’s attention has waned since Ebola didn’t turn into the global pandemic we all feared this summer, people still are dying in West Africa. Since this outbreak started, authorities suspect, with the death of a 2-year-old boy in December 2013, about 6,400 people have died, most of them in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
No country has been harder hit than Sierra Leone. As of early December, it had the most Ebola cases – 7,897, according to the World Health Organization’s Dec. 10 update. Almost 400 new cases were confirmed there in the first week of December alone.
I was as fascinated as anyone when this story started to unfold last spring. There are few diseases as terrifying as the hemorrhagic virus that liquefies organs and tissue and leaves victims to die in the mess and loved ones to witness it. It’s worse than the nastiest disease cooked up in the twisted imagination of Stephen King.
The images of death and despair were horrifying, of course. But what moved me more were the images of the people who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives caring for Ebola patients. Or even for offering a simple act of human kindness.
I think about Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Though we can never be sure how he contracted the disease, his final days in Liberia before coming to Texas included helping a pregnant woman dying from Ebola. He helped carry her sick body and rode in a taxi with her to the hospital. He knew the risk of rendering this kind of assistance; it was mid-September and the outbreak was well underway. He did it anyway. Would I have done the same?
I am even more in awe of health care workers in Africa who risk infection every day, knowing that so many of their colleagues have died despite the precautions, the gloves, the masks, the suits and the disinfectants. They are the heroes of this crisis. It is fitting that they were named collectively as Time’s Person of the Year.
Yes, the Ebola outbreak has been a story of horror and sadness. But one of profound humanity, too.