SEATTLE — Since March, reports have been steadily released, chronicling a growing Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but they were somehow easy to disregard. As the number of deaths stretched first into the hundreds, then into the thousands, most Americans remained unaffected by the spreading outbreak. And while the current overall number of confirmed cases in West Africa, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), has now reached 13,540, the focus on Ebola in the U.S. has reached to a much smaller number: three.
There have been three confirmed cases of Ebola on U.S. soil, leading to one death. Thomas Eric Duncan, the only casualty in the U.S. to date, had recently traveled to the U.S. from Liberia, a nation that has seen over 6,000 cases and nearly 2,500 deaths since March. Since his death in early October and the subsequent questioning of his doctor’s judgement, Ebola has consistently been at the forefront of American politics and media coverage.
According to John Campbell, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the delayed response from the U.S. government is indicative of systemic foreign aid issues: “”Chronic underfunding” of WHO, by the U.S. and other countries, slowed the health organization’s ability to assess the situation and muster more timely aid… I see this as a failure on the part of the governments involved, combined with very, very limited capacity [in the afflicted countries]and a failure on the part of international agencies to sound the alarm.”
The comparative indifference to Ebola’s spread in West Africa can be seen in the fact that the U.S.has spent $208 million so far to fight the disease internationally. Compare that number to the estimated $4 billion on hand to fight Ebola on domestic shores, or the $1 billion already spent in air strikes against ISIS this year. The dissonance created by the domestic and international response is staggering, and begs the question, why?
One possible answer comes from an unlikely source. As Shankar Vedantam of NPR reports, Dr. Paul Slovic, a research Psychologist at the University of Oregon, has recently published a paper detailing what he refers to as “pseudoinefficacy.” Explaining this odd term, Dr. Slovic writes: “Inefficacy, real or perceived, shrivels response, even among those who have the desire and the means to protect and improve lives.”
Dr. Slovic’s research suggests that individuals and–by extension–governments are much more likely to respond with aid when they feel as if they can provide solutions to the entire problem. Using world hunger as an example, Slovic explains, “… the money donated to a seven-year-old African child facing starvation decreased dramatically when the donor was made aware that the child was one of millions needing food aid.”
Perhaps the manageable numbers of Ebola outbreak in the U.S. will motivate change in the way international aid is allocated. The resources are available in the United States to make an impact on global health and poverty, and now policymakers are being forced to enact workable solutions domestically.
The question then becomes whether or not these same women and men will consider helping those in the international community who could benefit from the same resources and solutions.
– Casey Hobbs
Sources: NPR, University of Oregon, Voice of America, CDC 1, CDC 2, CNN 1, CNN 2, New York Times, CBS