News of Ebola in West Africa immediately sent me back to the spring of 1974, when another highly contagious and deadly hemorrhagic virus known as Lassa fever swept through my hometown of Jos, Nigeria. All through that hot and dry season, people drove straight through my city with their car windows closed, even though they had no air conditioning, so as not to catch what they feared to be blowing in the wind. I was a young child at the time and as the daughter of a pastor, I prayed fervently for those suffering. I prayed that the afflicted would be cured, but in spite of my prayers, many people died. I was shaken by these deaths but nevertheless continued to pray for them. I took hope in the seemingly miraculous recovery of an American missionary nurse.
Nurse Lily Pinneo was the first Lassa fever patient dramatically airlifted out of West Africa to the United States, just like today’s first American Ebola patients, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Nurse Pinneo not only recovered from Lassa fever; she returned to Nigeria with her antibodies, which were then successfully used in the form of a serum to cure others. In light of the recent anxieties surrounding the arrival of Ebola patients in the U.S., it is hard to imagine that Nurse Pinneo was not transported in a specially outfitted medical evacuation plane. Instead she traveled in the first class section of a commercial flight with little more than a curtain separating her from the other passengers. It was a Pan American Airways Boeing 707 that stopped in Accra, Monrovia, and Dakar picking up new passengers at each point.
Now, some forty years later after the Lassa fever outbreak, I worry about Ebola and in particular about my friends and family who live in West Africa. “Please be careful,” I urged my brother in a recent email sent from where I live in San Francisco to where he works in Lagos. I was hoping he might reassure me by saying he was taking extra care, but instead he replied: “There’s nothing much one can do to be ‘careful’. Like everybody else in Nigeria, I will just have to rely on prayer.” I groaned when I read this for I’m not sure my brother believes in prayer and even if he does, his email reads like a vast over-reliance on prayer at a time when there are many more practical things that can and should be done. Except perhaps in a densely populated megacity with close to 21 million people living in the context of widespread poverty and a lack of awareness about disease. Here, the arrival of a pandemic such as Ebola could be catastrophic, even apocalyptic. What my brother’s response made me realize was that in places like Lagos where the healthcare system is inadequate and health workers are constantly on strike, this leaves people with little option but to rely on prayer.
While I no longer have the same unwavering belief in prayer that I had as a child, I continue to pray. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, Ling, my local dry cleaner, pointed to a photograph of her beloved Pope Francis and told me she was praying for those suffering from Ebola. I told her I was praying too. Several days later, in a conversation with my Palestinian neighbor, Mohammed, as we bemoaned the atrocities taking place in the Middle East, we both spoke of how we could do little but pray. So like my brother and many others in Nigeria, as well as those in the areas most affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and now Senegal, I find myself, almost in spite of myself, relying on prayer. And yet prayer is undoubtedly a powerful way of fostering bonds between neighbours and friends. Prayer might even be powerful enough to bring about miracles, but it can never be a substitute for the alleviation of problems that require coordinated international efforts on matters of governance, regional security, healthcare and public services. Ultimately, what I pray for most urgently these days is for greater, concerted human effort to solve today’s most terrifying problems. Some things are simply beyond human control, but Ebola is not one of these.