When I read the news updates from Ebola-stricken West Africa, my stomach churns painfully, and the lump in my throat hardens. For over half a year my friends in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been trying to get accustomed to the incessant shadow that follows them around every second of the day, threatening to swallow them into darkness if they deviate even slightly from the rules.
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The "Ebola routine" is anything but. After all, how can you ever get used to living a normal life when confronting a brutal and faceless enemy? Can you allow yourself to tremble with fear and cry in despair as your friends breath their last breath, or try desperately to climb out of fenced and quarantined neighborhoods - and yet not hold your loved ones in your arms for fear you might be next? Ebola dictates that humans live without the very ingredient that makes life worthwhile - humanity.
In Sierra Leone, there aren’t enough hospital beds; Ebola patients have to stay at home and be treated by family members. The only supposed consolation - like sticking a band aid on a gaping wound – are the painkillers, gloves and disinfectants that officials have said they will begin distributing – so the lucky ones there may even survive to tell the story.
The headlines over the past months have been increasingly appalling, not least for those of us with direct experience in the region. It’s hard to believe that in 2014 the international community is unable (and/or unwilling) to fully respond to the crisis plaguing West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal), which has so far affected over 8,000 people and has killed over 4,000 for the most basic logistical reasons - not being able to build makeshift hospitals or treatment centers fast enough to treat patients. I can’t help but wonder: If other countries, in other regions of the world, were under the Ebola threat, would this still be the case?
Perhaps that explains why the Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya’alon, last week rejected a special request from the American administration and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to send an IDF field hospital to help address the epidemic of Ebola despite Israel’s previous successful medical relief operations following natural disasters in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines. While MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, will send three mobile emergency clinics to West Africa; while admirable, this is primarily a symbolic preventive gesture whose effects can only pale in comparison to the life-saving results an IDF field hospital would have.
In its limited response, Israel joins an incredibly and disproportionately slow response from the international community, cushioned with excuses - the difficulty of moving heavy equipment, concern for the lives of their personnel, lack of funding. All of these are very real challenges, but how many times have we risked lives abroad when our own strategic interests were at heart? How much time will pass before the situation gets completely out of hand, revealing itself as the global strategic risk into which it may develop, leaving us with too little, too late?
I have had the privilege of working with inspiring Sierra Leoneans and Liberians who have spent their lives rebuilding the countries they saw devastated by brutal civil wars infamous for their forcible recruitment of child soldiers. I have spent the past seven years working to rebuild Sierra Leone’s education systems so that the country has a solid foundation of educated leaders. The importance of empowering people to take their destiny into their own hands has never been so clear as with Ebola, which only highlights how—when push comes to shove—no one outside their borders will be there to help.
These efforts are in real danger now. Crumbling foundations that were only now beginning to heal are being shattered again. After all, more than a pathological disease, Ebola is a disease of underdevelopment and poverty. We don’t have to wait for a miracle drug to eradicate this disease. We can act now to curb it by developing solutions to ameliorate unsanitary conditions, and respond to the shortage of beds and basic equipment, and lack of transportation and infrastructure that contributes to the disease’s spread.
Israel is a leader in crisis management, in building systems and infrastructure allowing the provision of emergency supplies and communications, and in helping populations deal with and recover from tragedy. Its Minister of Defense may have turned his head, but not everyone is paralyzed. IsraAid, a non-governmental organization committed to providing disaster relief and long-term support, has sent staff to Sierra Leone and Liberia to work on community building and coping with the post-traumatic stress Ebola has and will trigger. Perhaps they actually listened to the campaigns of local people who are crying out to whomever will listen in an attempt to accelerate international action and aid.
But if Israel is going to succeed in bettering the lives of hundreds in these countries, we need to rally up efforts and funding from the Jewish and larger international community.
One time in Sierra Leone, little kids surrounded me and asked whether I was a Muslim or a Christian (the two religions in their country). I replied that I am Jewish. They looked at me, puzzled, and asked me whether that made me a Muslim or a Christian.
The Ebola epidemic demands we redress this lack of contact and awareness of a humanitarianism rooted in Israel’s capabilities and Judaism’s values. We can put Israel at the forefront of the fight against Ebola and prove that for once, here is an enemy that does not distinguish between peoples.
Liat Krawczyk is the Co-Founder of the Jeneba Project, an organization that works to provide youth in Sierra Leone with educational opportunities by building schools, giving scholarships to girls and creating a civil-war survivor video/audio testimonies archive.