Why you should care

Ebola moved nearly everyone in the world, whether with fear or sadness. What has the outbreak taught us? 

If only the end of 2014 augured the end of Ebola, too. Alas, no, the crisis continues, though mostly far from the rich world’s sight. The shortcomings of humanitarian aid were no secret well before the first Ebola case emerged, deep in the Guinean forests. But Ebola thrust them into the spotlight like little else, and certainly not like malaria, TB or cholera, which kill many more every year.

The reason? Well, the cynical one is that Ebola came knocking at the shores of the rich world, prompting a worldwide panic. An unjustified one, mostly, Eugene S. Robinson argued. While Ebola’s serious for those who have it, for most Americans it’s “detracting from issues that we need to be much more concerned about, like global warming, HIV and even crossing the street safely.”

We weren’t wholly solipsists, of course: Ebola is freaky and mad spreadable. OZY reporter Melissa Pandika pointed us to a study showing that Ebola’s true scale is a mystery. The typical mathematical model that describes the eventual scale of past outbreaks simply doesn’t apply to what global health experts consider the worst Ebola epidemic on record, according to the study’s author. And as OZY’s Nathan Siegel told us, there was another reason for fear: If you had Ebola, how would you know? Six months into the outbreak in West Africa, standard Ebola testing machines were in short supply — reportedly fewer than a dozen in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone combined — and the lag between testing and results was long. A handful of new devices promised quick, cheap and easy tests — some of the best inventions we saw all year.

Happily, cases are tapering — or at least not exploding anymore. It’s time to ask the difficult questions — like, what have we learned? Early on, OZY contributor Allyn Gaestel explored whether Ebola might be a catalyst for reform in the global health system. In the fall, a few ideas appeared to be taking shape. More aggressive intervention by international agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO). Devolution of resources and control to entities on the ground. And, over the long term, beefing up local health architecture, from medical schools to hospitals. But long-term change, she reported, would require global health players to look beyond the consuming crisis — a hard thing, always.

Students in a Czech hospital practice treating an dummy Ebola patient.

Students in a Czech hospital practice treating a dummy Ebola patient.

That doesn’t stop one from hoping. By late November, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Rajiv Shah was speaking of the possibilities of positive outcomes from Ebola — namely, addressing a host of health care shortcomings in poor countries, the same ones the Ebola crisis so tragically highlighted: a dearth of doctors, lack of supplies and training, and a concentration of clinics in cities rather than in rural areas where many people live. Those same problems have thwarted global attempts to eliminate quieter killers, like malaria and tuberculosis, in poor countries.

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