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On Fear, and Ebola

Ebola seems be a thing of the past here in Dallas, but the ripples it has sent through this town will remain for a long time.

As the disease continues its rampage across West Africa and inevitably finds its way into more and more American cities, I pray that others may learn from our experience. Because while Dallas seems to have won against Ebola, I fear that we lost an even more important battle.

I am no doctor or scientist. I am a rabbi. All I know about Ebola I have read in the paper or studied on the internet. But I do know that it is in times of crisis like this one when the very ideals upon which our societies are built are tested – and I am terrified that we are failing.

Just a few miles from where I live and work, the family of Thomas Eric Duncan was kept confined to their tiny apartment for days, imprisoned in inhumane conditions among contagious waste without reprieve. I continue to learn of families still refusing to send their children to school because one child’s parent is a nurse. The radio waves are filled with stories of Africans here being ostracized, treated across the board as Ebola-carriers.

Now, attention has turned to the Northeast with the arrival of Ebola in Manhattan. Already, leaders have attempted to put in place draconian rules to quarantine any health worker arriving home after treating the disease. Kaci Hickox, the brave nurse traveling through Newark after performing harrowing work in Sierra Leone was celebrated upon her arrival with seven hours of imprisonment and isolation following two days of travel without more than a granola bar. Now she’s had to fight for her freedom. And she’s not even sick.

Fear will ruin us, if we let it.

The Bible is filled with many esoteric and seemingly-irrelevant rules and laws that my colleagues and coreligionists take pains to derive meaning from in modernity. One such group of teachings concerns the treatment of leprosy, a disease which the Bible knows to be highly contagious. This section has often been derided as obsolete. We now know better.

Upon diagnosis, the biblical leper is immediately removed from society – as he should be – for the protection of the general public. But this attention also serves to protect the leper from the punishment of imprisonment and isolation within the community. The leper leaves, heals outside of the town, and then comes back. This is a paradigm to be modeled.

There is a fine line between separating a sick person from the healthy and punishing a person for potentially being sick. If we do the former, we are prudent. If we do the latter, we are cruel.

If someone is infected, let us treat them to the best of our ability and do everything in our power to protect the rest of society from exposure. But if our actions stem merely from anxiety over a person’s possible exposure to a virus scarier in our imaginations than in reality, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that these people are still human beings and treat them as such.

We should be judged as a society by the way we protect the weakest among us. As much as I fear Ebola, I worry more about the speed with which we are rushing to ostracize and punish those whom we fear may carry the disease.

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