In August, the BBC led with this headline: “Ebola crisis: Five ways to avoid the deadly virus.” They went on to say in the article, “Ebola is one of the world's most deadly viruses but is not airborne, so cannot be caught like flu. Medical experts say avoiding it should be quite easy if you follow these tips.” (emphasis added)
What a difference a few months make in perception and reality – the experts were correct, Ebola is not easy to catch, yet the epidemic continues to spread across West Africa. It’s now in a fourth country, Mali, and despite some encouraging signs of slowdown, we cannot be certain how long it will take to contain this deadly virus or how many more lives it will claim.
What did these BBC medical experts get wrong? The BBC’s #1 tip made perfect sense: family members, patients, medical workers were told to wash their hands with soap and water. But in impoverished villages, small and large, even in the cities of West Africa, clean water, soap and a toilet are luxuries.
Imagine if the simplest acts of hygiene were impossible for your family. I remember how sick I used to get when our kids were young and I was changing lots of diapers – and I used to nearly wash the skin off my hands!
Doctors Without Borders has warned us about such outbreaks, as they usually spread in areas where hospitals have poor infection control and limited access to resources such as running water. The extensive healthcare infrastructure we take for granted here in the U.S. cannot be imagined in many parts of our world. You don’t need to be a doctor to understand how infection spreads. Without the resources to maintain basic personal hygiene, the foundational building block to health security is missing.
The global water and sanitation crisis, ever-present in tens of thousands of villages and cities around the world, is another kind of epidemic that kills thousands of children every day, stunts the growth of others, and causes lifelong chronic illness – animating more poverty. That same water and sanitation crisis in West Africa also makes the response to Ebola slower and riskier for everyone – from family members caring for the sick and burying their dead, to the medical workers trying to heal them. I think we learned again that we are only as safe – anywhere on this planet – as the sickest people with whom we live together on it.
The Ebola outbreak is a tragic illustration and another reason why water and sanitation is the keystone cure to global health and development. Amos 5:24 tells us, “let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” It is time for Congress to take three steps toward justice and prioritize this fundamental necessity to all life:
1) Congressional hearings are underway about Ebola strategy and funding. When all the speeches and analysis are done, key to any plan must be a commitment to sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) funding and development.
2) Let’s finally pass the Water for the World Act. It smart legislation that more effectively targets U.S. water aid to countries where it’s needed most. It’s even got bipartisan support. But it is skipped over time and again for other more pressing items of the day. What is more pressing than access to safe water, the source of all life? Now is the time for Congressional leaders in the House and Senate to make the moral call and call for a vote, and finally turn the Water for the World Act into law before this session of Congress ends.
3) As Congress and our partners around the world focus funding and energy on Ebola, the U.S. must not allow unprecedented foreign aid successes to roll backward. Not only has U.S. foreign aid funding and leadership lead the way to securing our borders from disease; U.S. foreign aid is leading the way in helping lift families out of poverty faster than ever before, keeping 6.3 million more children alive this year than in 1990, keeping more girls in school, more farmers growing better harvests, and more countries building healthcare infrastructure so they can beat back diseases, including Ebola.
God calls on us to face injustice and combat wrong. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) When God’s children die from preventable diseases because they don’t have safe water, we must respond. It is time to make water the source of health and life - for all.
Kowalski, D Min., is dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and a leader in the Episcopal Church.