Modern Leprosy: Our Catholic Call to Fight Ebola

Modern Leprosy: Our Catholic Call to Fight Ebola

By Andrea Price

At first glance, the current Ebola crisis may look like simply an international health or medical issue. Go deeper than the surface, however, and the intricacies of the problem reveal a social justice issue with systemic roots.

The Ebola epidemic shows no sign of abatement, with the most vulnerable populations continuing to suffer – mostly in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal. Bishop Richard Pates, the Chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Catholic Relief Services president Dr. Carolyn Woo recently wrote a letter to the U.S. National Security Advisor addressing the Ebola epidemic and urging the United States to make “a long-term commitment to resolving the underlying problem of the severe lack of capacity and resilience in the health systems of the affected countries. Even after the Ebola outbreak is contained, donors will need to help reinforce, if not rebuild, health systems to prevent future outbreaks.” By making systemic connections to the underlying problems that the Ebola crisis has revealed, Bishop Pates and Dr. Woo mark it as a social justice issue.

U.S. reaction to Ebola demonstrates an extreme case of “othering” of victims in foreign countries.  While media coverage of Ebola explodes whenever a suspected victim is identified in our own country, interest in the well-being of those in other countries can be weak. As Christians, we are called to be concerned with all our neighbors, including those in the affected countries in Africa. Consider the statistics: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have recorded 15,113 cases of the disease, resulting in 5,406 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Catholics should strive to show active concern for all members of our one human family.

Why are we called to fight Ebola and support the victims of this crisis? We can find the answer in Catholic Social Teaching.

Life & Dignity of the Human Person – All human life is sacred, including the lives of those infected with Ebola. The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs highlights the Church’s past involvement through the extensive health networks present in areas affected by Ebola, helping combat the disease and ensuring the dignity of each human life.

Call to Family, Community, and Participation – During and after the epidemic, families and communities will be fractured by the deaths of their loved ones and community leaders, spurring the need for financial and structural support. Survivors and victims will also need spiritual support in order to work through their grief. Additionally, the epidemic has halted many day-to-day events and interactions, robbing individuals of their right to participate fully in their families and communities.

Rights and Responsibilities – Every person has a right to life, and so it is our responsibility as a society to defend this right. Pope John XXIII outlined human rights in his encyclical Pacem in Terris: “Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health…or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood”(#11). During the Ebola crisis, it is far too easy to forget about victims’ rights. Artist André Carrilho drew attention to the West’s dismissal of human life during the Ebola crisis through a powerful illustration.

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – The poor, women, and children are suffering the most in victimized countries. Affected countries are often very poor, lacking the infrastructure needed to address the outbreak, the basic nutrition to build healthy bodies against disease, and the education to assist in preventing contamination. Additionally, the National Catholic Register reports that a Caritas adviser “suggested that many pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to spend so much money on Ebola research. Although the virus has caused ‘great damage,’ it is ‘not spread all over the world.’” This insight implies that society has no desire to offer a preferential option for the poor who are suffering from the outbreak.

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers – Workers affected by the outbreak often suffered from a lack of dignity before the epidemic, and the Ebola crisis has only worsened their economic situation. A Time article explained the many aspects of Liberia’s precarious economy have been affected by Ebola, with the disease resulting in migration restrictions, high food prices, and an inability for borrowers to repay their business loans, as well as closing schools that leaves teachers out of work.

Solidarity – Despite fears of global infection, all are called to treat the victims of Ebola as part of our one human family. We can stand in solidarity with Ebola victims by praying and sending aid, and by turning away from xenophobia and a culture of exclusion. A Jesuit Post article identifies Ebola as modern-day leprosy: a disease of untouchability. The author eloquently calls for solidarity with Ebola victims and for rejection of fear, isolation, paranoia, and exclusion.

Care for God’s Creation – The Ebola epidemic will leave an environmental impact. The effects of the outbreak, including food scarcity, will play out in the environment long after the crisis has been controlled. Additionally, the epidemic draws attention away from other pressing issues regarding the protection of creation – both in the victimized countries and throughout the world.

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, a Caritas health adviser, sums up the situation on the ground by saying, “At this point, it’s not only about preventing Ebola. We’re also called to care for the thousands of healthy people who were already poor, who have no access to healthcare for other illnesses, and whose lives have been turned upside down by this crisis.”

While the Ebola crisis calls Catholics to pray and send aid to victimized countries, it also calls us to do much more – to reflect on the systemic roots of the epidemic, to apply the themes of Catholic Social Teaching to the current issues and concerns, and then to take action in order to better protect our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.


Andrea Price is a graduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

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