“Are you scared?” I remember asking a nurse from the British Red Cross who had just spent 30 minutes suiting up in his personal protective equipment.

Goggles tight, gown and apron secured, boots doused in chlorine, sweat droplets formed on his brow during the first round of training in Geneva. It would be at least twice as hot in Sierra Leone, where he would treat Ebola patients a few days later that fall of 2014.

He admitted that it was a new level of precaution. But that he was ready.

Alex was one of thousands of aid workers who dropped all comforts of home to fight the battle against Ebola in West Africa. I had been working for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies the year the outbreak started, sending our first group of frontline health workers to treat Ebola patients in the field. I met some of my heroes that year. Their bravery continues to inspire me, yet many of their stories go untold.

Now, the subject is back in the headlines. Days after being declared Ebola-free, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone remain at high risk for small outbreaks.

I saw how the disease took advantage of everyone – patients, families and aid workers. No matter how hard my colleagues and I tirelessly tried to spread truth and awareness of the epidemic, fear seemed to always win.

I landed home in Chicago the week all public health Hell broke loose in the States: a gentleman in Dallas had contracted Ebola. In slow motion, I watched as irrationality took over every single TV screen and headline, seizing the public’s ability to process the facts. People were self-quarantining. No one wanted to fly. Our health system was deemed inadequate.

All the sudden, everyone seemed to care about “Fearbola.” It was no longer just a “West African disease.”

“Kadiatu, 12, survived Ebola and hopes to become a lawyer because she ‘likes the idea of helping people.’ Photo credit: Katherine Mueller/IFRC”

It has become all too easy in times of crisis to stare at the façade of an issue without looking deeper. What lies beyond the panic and anxiety? It’s a problem of misrepresentation. And it’s a monumental problem of misconnection.

We so desperately want to say we are a part of a solution somewhere, that we are helping “them.” But that’s hard to do when we’re paralyzed with fear, or focused on painted pictures of helplessness. We don’t need more pity. We need to bring back empathy.

The Role of Empathy in Problem Solving

Empathy and pity are not the same. Pity is the sole act of feeling sorry, without being able to see yourself in another. Empathy is that extreme emotional connection when we can actually see part of ourselves in that person’s story. We can relate. We’ve been there before.

At the root of building any solution is connection and understanding. We are hardwired for the desire to relate with each other. When that’s lost, so is our ability to care, driving well-intended outcomes dead into the ground.

> Ebola is dangerous, but it’s pity and fear that make up an epidemic that will keep returning if we don’t take action.

I have hope that we can change this. The key in doing so is remembering that behind every global issue lie our fellow neighbors, despite cultures, languages and rituals between us. There is no “them v. us.” Your pain can hurt just as much as my pain.

Inside those Ebola spacesuits were mothers, daughters and sons taking care of families who had just gone through unimaginable, paralyzing trauma. We need to remind ourselves that we all have the same fundamental beliefs when it comes to doing the best for our families, wanting to protect our dignity in terrifying times of change.

It’s not complicated. Our focus goes where our energy does. Airtime filled with sheer death toll numbers and assumptions of the worst make it easy to put our attention toward what’s failing during any crisis. If we want to be the models for change, we need to start focusing on solutions instead of engaging in untrammeled speculation.

What makes us look the other way when we hear about uncomfortable issues? Is it that we feel nothing is working anyway, so why bother? Or do we simply need to be reminded that it’s not naïve to latch onto hope in the first place? It’s there, and it’s begging to be listened to.

Before my return to the States, I was surrounded by powerful stories of survivors. 12 year-old Kadiatu [photo] was one of the first to be released from a treatment center in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Her entire family had been separated between hospitals, the fate of her father still unknown. The day she was released, she danced to Michael Jackson alongside the “people in white suits” who she later understood were there to help her. Now, she says wants to be a lawyer so she can help people, too.

A brigade of adolescents nicknamed the “burial boys” faced rejection from their own homes while taking on the task of safely burying their neighbors. They realized that if they didn’t take on the daunting, dangerous task of burying those who had lost the Ebola battle, no one would. It was their mission and duty to preserve the dignity of their community.

> I’m convinced the resiliency and grit of the human spirit is more contagious than any disease.

As a humanitarian often on the ground during major disasters, I am grateful to see courage and kindness when it matters most. But I don’t consider myself lucky to notice that it exists. We can all see it, if we want to. The best of humanity comes out in the worst of times.

We need to be vulnerable and willing to connect in times when it might be frightening. Cultures may differ, but we all grow from the same empathic roots.

We need to empower ourselves to bridge these gaps with the hope we see in each other, not to widen them with despair.

What do we have to lose?

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