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Things Fall Apart: The Social Impact of Ebola

Things Fall Apart is a novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and tells the story of the life of a leader and local wrestling champion in a fictional group of villages in Nigeria.  Set in pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s, the novel highlights the inevitable clash between colonialism and traditional culture. The protagonist is Okonkwo who is strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness.  However, even in strength we find weakness and as Okonkwo struggles with the imposed values of colonialism versus traditional culture he learns that things can and sometimes do fall apart.

The title of Achebe’s novel is an apt description for the challenge now facing the people of Liberia as they deal with Ebola Virus Disease and watch things all around them falling apart.  Helene Cooper’s October 4th article for the New York Times, Ebola’s Cultural Casualty: Hugs in Hands-On Liberia provides this description of the agony faced by Precious Diggs:

It is hard enough to push away family and friends, shunning an embrace or even a shake of the hand to protect yourself from Ebola. But imagine trying not to touch your 2-year-old daughter when she is feverish, vomiting blood and in pain.

Precious Diggs, a 33-year-old contractor for a rubber company, had heard all the warnings from the legions of public health workers here in Liberia. She had seen the signs that dot the road from Harbel, where she works, to the capital, Monrovia, some 35 miles away: “Ebola is Here and Real!” they say. “Stop the Denial!”

But when her toddler, Rebecca, started “toileting and vomiting,” there was no way her mother was not going to pick her up… “Na mind, baby,” Ms. Diggs whispered in her baby’s ear. “I beg you, na mind.”

What must it be like for a mother to be told that she cannot touch her child or a people who come out of a culture of closeness and caring to keep their distance from one another?  What does it mean to be unable to shake someone’s hand, to give a friend a hug or kiss the one you love?  Where do you go in a disease ravaged nation to find the comfort of touch and close physical contact?

Well, I don’t have an answer for any of these questions and I really don’t think that an answer exists, but I am reminded of the words that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his April, 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The letter was written to other ministers in Birmingham who questioned Dr. King’s active involvement in the civil rights movement and in particular his act of civil disobedience in support of the bus boycott in Birmingham which lead to his arrest.  While I highly recommend that you read the letter in its entirety, I think these few words of Dr. King will make my point: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.”

We live in a global village and while Liberia is a little more than 2,100 miles from Chicago what happens in Liberia has the potential to touch any or all of us and some more personally than others.  At a time like this we are all called to do what we can in a crisis of this magnitude whether through direct service, supporting those who choose to serve, or supporting organizations that are already on the ground.  We truly are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and like it or not we are our brother’s keepers.

In closing let me leave you with this adaption of a Bodhisattva vow:

May all sentient beings be well and enjoy the root of happiness:

Free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the joy beyond sorrow.

May they dwell in spacious equanimity.

Free from craving, fear, and ignorance.

A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.