Editorial: The Ebola epidemic

Reports of the Ebola crisis in West Africa are going from bad to worse as the World Health Organization estimates that the disease will spread exponentially in the next several weeks. More than 2,100 people are confirmed to have died of the virus in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone so far this year, but numbers are widely believed to be higher. Infection rates could climb into the “tens of thousands” by December.

For just a glimpse of how dire the situation has become, take the story of St. Joseph Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. In August, the Catholic hospital founded in the 1960s — believed to be the oldest operating hospital in the country — shut down after an Ebola outbreak that claimed the lives of multiple religious running the organization, including the hospital’s 52-year-old director, Brother Patrick Nshamdze, a member of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. Congolese nun Sister Pascaline Chantal, a sister of the Immaculate Conception, and Spanish missionary Father Miguel Pajares, also died, as well as three other women. Unable to contain the virus, the hospital instead was shuttered — a common fate for medical facilities in Liberia right now with too many patients and too few resources.

The international community needs to commit to providing resources to quell this crisis in Africa itself, and not just keep it from Western shores.

To make matters worse, Church officials are reporting rising food prices and families going hungry because they are unable to work due to disease-prevention quarantines.

“Particularly in Liberia, Ebola has become an economic and social problem as well as a health problem,” Salesian Father Jorge Crisafulli, provincial superior of West Africa, told the Catholic Herald in London in late August.

More than anything else right now, West Africa needs two things: prayers and financial support. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) underscores the importance of both by reminding Catholics that we are called to be a “missionary church.” By doing so, he said, we are obliged to follow the Gospel and assist “not so much our friends and wealthy neighbors, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, ‘those who cannot repay you’ (Lk 14:14)” (No. 48).

In response to this missionary call, Catholic aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services are on the ground in Africa focusing on disease transmission prevention and treatment options. But eliminating Ebola is going to take more than aid groups. The international community, including the United States, needs to commit to providing resources to quell this crisis in Africa itself, and not just keep it from Western shores.

While many Americans have a misunderstanding of what percentage of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign aid, in fact the U.S. government allocates only 1 percent of its budget for all nonmilitary foreign aid, or $30 billion. And this number pales in comparison to the approximately 20 percent, or $700 billion, spent on military and defense. Undoubtedly, defense spending is necessary for our security and the safety of others — especially with the current ISIS threat in the Middle East. But such a huge gap between foreign aid and defense should at the very least give American Catholics pause.

We as individuals, too, should do our best to strive to be members of the missionary church to which Pope Francis is calling us by offering our support on a very practical level: assisting St. Joseph Hospital in Liberia in reopening its doors. To donate, go to sjcatholichospital.com.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor