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Feeding the Fear of Dying: America's Irrational Response to Ebola Echoes Early Days of AIDS

October 24, 2014

We don't deal well with dying in America. Sure, we attend religious services and visitations and burials to honor the dead and give them their proper sending off, but all of those events happen once a person has already passed. They deal with death, not dying.

Very rarely do Americans confront the physical process of dying and, if we do, odds are pretty high that it will be within the confines of a medical center. A hundred years ago, grandma died in her bedroom and her grandchildren were exposed to the process of dying and the presence of death. Today, grandma usually ends up dying in a nursing home or an ICU, miles away from her home and away from the curious eyes of children who are learning how the world works. As a result, dying ceases to be a part of life and becomes something that happens to other people in other places, far away from the day-to-day realities of our existence.

More than any other generation, millennials like myself (I'm 28) have been shielded from the dying process. That's why it shouldn't have surprised me to see that a recent survey has shown us to be more opposed to allowing Ebola-infected U.S. aid workers back into the country for treatment and more in favor of instituting travel bans on affected West African nations than older Americans -- but it did.

How could it be that three in four adults over 65 were willing to bring Americans with Ebola back stateside for treatment, while the majority of millennials wanted to shut the door on them? Normally, the young are supposed to be the progressive ones who reject cynical self-interest while the old are part of the conservative crowd that errs on the side of safety and security regardless of the circumstances, but not when it comes to Ebola. Ebola is different.

Ebola touches a nerve -- a nerve that is particularly sensitive in young men and women who grew up detached from death and surrounded by imagined and exaggerated threats broadcast by a news industry built upon perpetual fear-mongering.

For all intents and purposes, Ebola is a viral version of the bogeyman in the U.S. The virus has wrought havoc in West Africa, killing as many as 15,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, but it has killed exactly one person on U.S. soil -- a Liberian man who contracted Ebola in Liberia -- and has only infected three people in America, (two nurses who were treating the Liberian man, and a doctor who treated patients in Guinea).

And yet, this virus has inspired a level of panic and fear in the general public that is greater -- or at least more visceral -- than anything since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, which is ironic considering the fact that HIV/AIDS is still a massive public health threat that kills roughly 43 Americans every day. But AIDS doesn't scare us like it used to. Whether by dint of antiretroviral drugs or the simple passage of time, most Americans don't think of AIDS with terror and dread anymore -- that is, if they think of AIDS at all.

Bogeymen don't feed on facts; they feed on fear. External bleeding, violent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, the symptoms of Ebola are the stuff of nightmares and they provoke in us the same sort of horror and revulsion. And, just like our nightmares, there is nothing Ebola can do to hurt us -- at least not in the U.S. For 20-something Americans like myself, Ebola is little more than a phantom, an abstract reminder of our own mortality. But, to the people of West Africa, Ebola is the virus that has taken their families from them. It is the virus that leads hazmat-suited men to their doors to cart away the corpses of their sons and daughters to be buried in rows of graves marked with cardboard signs for headstones. It is the thing that rips their lives into tatters.

We may be afraid of Ebola here in America, but many in West Africa have to deal with fear while trying to stave off starvation. For millions of people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone who live hand-to-mouth, the quarantines and rising food prices have left them with no reliable food source during this already horrendous time. Instead of feeding the collective fear we have of Ebola, I urge you to feed someone in need through the Lunchboxgift initiative's #LunchIsOnMe program, which provides hot meals for those living in the heart of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone.

Fight the fear and make a difference in the fight against Ebola.

Drew Gibson is a social worker and freelance writer based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. He does his best to split his time and efforts between his work as a case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS in Northern Kentucky and the maintenance of his blog, "Virally Suppressed," which covers a multitude of issues related to inequity and social justice. You can follow him on Twitter at @SuppressThis.

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