TIME has decided that “The Ebola Fighters” are the collective Person of Year for 2014.
These are people who put themselves in great danger to help others in the midst of a public health crisis that is still ongoing. But when the US had its first brushes with Ebola patients and caregivers over the summer, we treated them like pariahs, not heroes.
When Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the US, became the number one story on cable news, there was a remarkable lack of sympathy for the dying man.
Instead, some cable news shows jumped on him for lying in order to get treatment in the US, for deliberately putting American lives at risk, for travelling to the US for care instead of staying in Liberia.
By the time he died, not long after his second trip to the hospital, little had been done to restore his reputation.
According to his nephew, Duncan didn’t know he had been exposed to Ebola, and didn’t come to America for treatment — he came to visit his son. In fact, Duncan likely contracted Ebola in circumstances which would otherwise be described as heroic. But while he was still dying in the hospital, local prosecutors were speaking publicly about charging him with endangering others.
Four days before flying to America, The Dallas Morning News reported that Duncan rushed to the aid of a 19-year-old pregnant woman lying on the ground in pain. They say he carried her to a car, and rushed her to a local clinic. (Duncan’s nephew refutes this account, and there are some conflicting reports over whether and how it happened.)
But for an act of selflessness, Duncan paid with his reputation, and with his life.
Later, when Ebola volunteer Dr. Craig Spencer — who has since been cleared of the virus — underwent treatment for Ebola in New York, people slammed a victim for supposedly endangering millions of lives.
Duncan’s crime was dying in the wrong country; Spencer’s was not being sensitive to people’s ignorance.
On Twitter, news sites, and tabloids, the doctor was criticised for taking public transport, using Uber, and going bowling with friends — despite the fact that Ebola is not contagious until a person shows symptoms, is transmitted via bodily fluids, and is most infectious when someone is extremely ill.
The reality is that Spencer was following best practices, taking his temperature twice daily and monitoring his condition. Later, it became clear that he didn’t infect anyone else in New York — not his fiancee or his large and devoted healthcare team, and certainly no one who rode next to him on the subway.
But the even bigger irony is that Spencer was doing far more to combat the disease than any of the cable talking-heads or armchair Twitter critics. The doctor made a heroic decision to lay his life on the line to help the thousands of people suffering from Ebola in countries where the outbreak has already spiraled out of control.
At Doctors Without Borders, Spencer joined 3,000 other volunteers who have been working at heart of the catastrophe to help people in the desperately afflicted countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
More than 600 healthcare workers from a wide variety of local and international groups have been infected since the outbreak began; 342 have died.
One worker wrote about having to stand in the rain and turn people away from an overcrowded treatment center.
“The first person I had to turn away was a father who had brought his sick daughter in the trunk of his car. He was an educated man, and he pleaded with me to take his teenage daughter, saying that while he knew we couldn’t save her life, at least we could save the rest of his family from her,” he wrote.
Of more concern than the risk of an outbreak in America is the very real outbreak already killing thousands of innocent people in West Africa, where hundreds are still dying in excruciating pain and agony every week, long after the US media frenzy died down.
TIME gave readers a welcome reminder that there are real heroes in this unfolding catastrophe, and there are thousands of victims — perhaps Americans and the American media could do better to remember that.
“I have witnessed the devastation Ebola causes and have personally experienced the stigma that fear of this disease brings,” Kaci Hickox, a Maine nurse who was forcibly quarantined and loudly criticised upon her return from treating Ebola patients abroad, told TIME. “I do want to go back to West Africa, but for now, I’m taking things day by day.”
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