When Some Lives Matter More Than Others

by Mary Button

In the wake of criticisms aimed at President Obama’s handling of Ebola, a black and white photograph of Ronald Reagan started appearing all over my Facebook feed. Written across the photograph, in standard meme format, were these words: “President Reagan ignored AIDS until 20,849 Americans had already died. But tell me again how Obama’s immediate response to three Ebola cases has been inadequate.”

Aside from the snide tone, what I find most troubling about this viral photograph is that it focuses only on the experiences of Americans during these epidemics, ignoring the impact of both on African lives.

In fact, the world’s reaction to the Ebola epidemic has quite a lot in common with the Reagan administration’s handling of the AIDS crisis.

The stark reality is this: If the United States government had valued the lives of gay men, the shape of the AIDS epidemic would be radically different. And like the AIDS epidemic before it, the Ebola epidemic reveals the catastrophic consequences that come when fear and hysteria separate us from our shared humanity.

There have been four confirmed Ebola cases in the United States. One man has died. The other three patients are healthcare workers who contracted Ebola while working to save the lives of their patients. At the end of October, the World Health Organization confirmed 13,700 cases of Ebola in West Africa. According to the WHO, 5,000 people have died. That number, however, is much contested. Many deaths go unreported and healthcare workers on the ground in West Africa have suggested that the true number may be two or three times higher. The disease is spreading so rapidly that even the conservative estimates of the WHO suggest that by late January there could be as many as 1.4 million Ebola cases.

If, when AIDS was still Gay Related Infectious Disease, the United States had dedicated money, time, and resources to eradicating the disease, millions of African lives would have been saved. It was almost two decades into the AIDS crisis before lifesaving anti-retroviral medications were widely available. These medications remain largely unavailable to African men, women, and children suffering from the disease. Of the more than 10 million HIV-positive patients in Africa, only 5 million are on antiretroviral medications.

In my mind, John 18:38, a verse sometimes referred to as “jesting Pilate,” is the most searing example of irony in Biblical literature.

It is a passage in which Jesus and Pilate engage in philosophical debate over the meaning of truth in the moments before Jesus is condemned to death by a crowd in hysterics:

‘You are a king then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is the truth?’ retorted Pilate.

The truth, we know, is Jesus himself. Blinded by his own power, Pilate cannot see the truth in front of his eyes.

The truth we are faced with now is this: the world we live in today is small. We are intricately connected by airports, by subways, but, above all, by love. When we place limits on the limitless, when we reserve love and care only for people who look like us, or who love the same type of people we love, we unleash catastrophe. But, hey, we’re at least getting some disingenuous internet memes out of it.

When I was 24 years old, I served as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s delegation to the Ecumenical Pre-Conference and the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. On the very first day of the Ecumenical Pre-Conference, we were welcomed to worship with a bishop’s declaration that “we,” the church, were the first to respond to the AIDS crisis, that “we” were on the front lines of the crisis since its beginning.

As an AIDS activist with an acute knowledge of the first years of the epidemic in the United States, I balked.

I left the room. Yet, it was a refrain that I heard repeated over and over. A support group was started for LGBTQ folks and their allies to meet in the evenings to support one another in the face of the constant barrage of these abusive and dismissive comments.

I wrote my senior thesis at NYU on the response of the arts communities in San Francisco and New York City to the AIDS crisis. Randy Shilts’ excellent “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” became my secular Bible. Shilts tells the story of Rev. Walter Alexander of Reno Nevada’s First Baptist Church, who told reporters that the answer to the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. was to “do what the Bible says and cut their [homosexuals] throats.”

At the end of the Ecumenical Pre-Conference, the LGBTQ caucus presented a statement regarding the rights of LGBTQ HIV+ folks. We asked that those who supported the cause of civil rights for the LGBTQ community stand while the statement was read. In a room of close to 500 people, fewer than 20 stood.

As the threat of the virus diminishes in the United States, how many of us will stand for the rights of West Africans infected with Ebola?

Almost 400,000 people signed a petition to stop the euthanization of Excalibur, the dog belonging to a Spanish nurse’s assistant who was hospitalized for Ebola after caring for a missionary infected with the disease. Video of animal rights activists clashing with police in Spain went viral.

As we’ve watched hysteria over Ebola in the United States rise and fall, the deaths of more than 4,000 West Africans continue to be met with the shrugging, ironic detachment of an internet-age Pilate.

Photo via flickr user NIAID