Where is this heading?

I am worried about Ebola. It is rapidly spinning out of control.

Photo from internet

Photo from internet

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a four-year old African child whose mother is dying of Ebola and I can not hug her or comfort her as she is dragged off by people looking like space travellers. I can not imagine what it is like to be a health care worker in a facility where there is no clean water supply, limited resources and few beds and knowing that just touching someone who is infected to provide care for them or make them more comfortable is risking my own life.

It annoys me somewhat when I see the panicked response of the U.S. or Spain when they get one case that is treated in health care systems that have funding many, many times that of the West African countries that are struggling to manage it. When the outbreak affects thousands in Liberia, far away, the response is muted. When one person in North America is treated with it, the response is a cascade of protective efforts, likely costing billions in the long run. I am not saying this is wrong, just imbalanced and so self-absorbed.

It frustrates me to know that the international community has dragged their feet in responding to this outbreak … until it becomes obvious that, with international travel, it is only a matter of time that the disease reaches us. It worries me that other African countries will soon be at risk and that their health care systems will do their best, but are woefully inadequate to cope with the anticipated exponential spread of this virus.   It troubles me to know that economies in many African countries, already struggling with poverty, will be decimated. Tourism is a major source of income. What traveller is going to pick an African vacation for their family with all this negative press and uncertainty?

When I graduated from medical school in 1974 there was no AIDS. Well, there were a few cases, scattered somewhere, but we didn’t know about it. Now millions have been infected and died of AIDS and although we have medications to manage it, we do not have a cure, nor effective immunization against it. Will Ebola be the next AIDS? Or worse?

What can we do about it? What can I do about it? So far the Canadian government has allocated about 5-6 million dollars to this crisis. They have also just approved an air bombing campaign in Iraq of undetermined cost but with estimates of 100 million dollars or more.   It costs close to $17,000 per hour to operate a CF-18 and each JDAM-equipped bomb that is dropped costs about $25,000. Can we get our priorities straight? Or at least balance them? How do we influence these decisions?

I have worked for the past five years to help to provide infrastructure improvements for schools, clinics and communities in East Africa through the CanAssist African Relief Trust. Will this be at all helpful if Ebola spreads eastward in Africa? I would like to think it will help. Education about spread of the disease and protection from it is essential to avoid infection and schools are a resource to help with that. CanAssist has supported clinics in several communities and has provided improved water and sanitation to communities and schools. Hopefully this will help if the need arises. Without adequate sanitation or access to clean water, how can anyone avoid contamination? CanAssist’s work involves only a few communities – we have limited resources despite a never-ending need. But hopefully, by preparing some communities a bit with infrastructure to help manage any possible outbreak (of Ebola or any other health threat) we can, in fact, save a few lives.

I plan to return to East Africa early in 2015. In addition to continuing to monitor and support new and existing projects through CanAssist (at no cost to our donors, by the way) I will be thinking about helping to provide some medical information about Ebola to the communities that I visit in preparation for what I fervently hope does not happen there. I have often felt that if Africa was educated about HIV/AIDS early on that this scourge would not have taken hold the way it did. Maybe with some warning and information, countries neighbouring those currently affected by Ebola can prepare to prevent it from engulfing in their communities. Not a panicked, emergency response but a practical preparation for a possible threat. It is worth a try.

“If I am only for myself, then what am I? And, if not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel, 50 BC

Slums in Africa house millions of people with little access to health facilities, clean water or sanitation. How would you contain it if an Ebola strikes here?

Slums in Africa house millions of people with little access to health facilities, clean water or sanitation. How would you contain it if  Ebola strikes here?

What would you do?

Peter Singer starts a recent TED talk with a dramatic video of a small child in China being knocked down by a car on the street. As she lies there, injured, three passers-by totally ignore her. The incident is reminiscent of the Good Samaritan story from the Bible, where a priest and a Levite ignore the plight of the injured traveler on the road before the Samaritan stops to help.

Singer asks the audience – “How many of you would have stopped to help?” Not surprisingly, most of the hands go up.

African Child - can you overlook her needs?

African Child – can you overlook her needs?

Singer then says something like “Well, there are children all around the world who live in poverty, vulnerable to preventable violence and disease – millions of them. Are you paying any attention to them?”

“Unicef reports that in 2011 over 6.5 million children under age 5 died of preventable poverty-related diseases.”

Singer is an Australian philosopher and humanist who writes and speaks out about many ethical issues including poverty and animal rights. In 2009, he wrote a book called “The Life You Can Save”. In the book he encourages readers to commit to helping developing communities with a small portion of their income. If you can afford to pay $2.00 for a bottle of water that is free from the tap, do you not have money to spare – to share, in fact, with others who are living without many of the necessities of life that we take for granted?

His message is not a guilt trip. He encourages us to enjoy the fruits of our labours and our good fortune at living in a community where there is law and order, fresh water, social responsibility and enough food but to share a portion of that with others who must live without those amenities.

We are constantly bombarded in the media with photos of children in North America who have perished in the natural (or unnatural) disasters like the recent tornado in Oklahoma City or the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Our hearts go out to the families of these children and we feel sad and that these deaths seem unfair. These are a very few children whose stories touch us because they are in communities like ours.

Nairobi slum

Nairobi slum

But what about the mothers of the 19,000 children who die in the developing world every day from preventable poverty-related problems? Do we give them much thought? Do we pour money into the developing world to help these 19,000 like we do to help families of the few North American families touched by tragedy?

Think about this for a minute. It is sobering. 19,000 per day.

The CanAssist African Relief Trust is attempting to so something, however small to help these families in East Africa. Rather than pick a few children for special attention, CanAssist funds community infrastructure projects like school classrooms, water and sanitation improvements, food security through local agriculture and health care facilities. We have funded around $300,000 in projects since 2008. Our Canadian community helping communities in Africa.

If you are interested in what we do, please look at our website http://canassistafrica.ca We are always happy to receive support, moral or financial, for the work we are committed to do to lessen the effects of poverty for vulnerable East African families.

(If you would like to participate in what CanAssist is doing to help communities in East Africa you can donate using the Canada Helps link below.)

donateNow2b1

Here is a link to the Peter Singer TED talk. If you have 15 minutes please listen to what he has to say.

A dilemma

A recent article that I wrote for the Kingston Whig Standard about little Jerry O, a 4 year old Kenyan orphan that I encountered earlier in 2012, brought several responses that included questions about adoption. Here is a response that I sent to one couple who inquired about adopting this child.

“There are many, many children in Africa who are vulnerable in so many ways. Your offer to help is kind and generous.

By “adopt” I am not sure if you are meaning a true adoption – bringing a child to Canada – or a distance adoption which amounts to sponsorship and support from here.

The true adoption process is long and complex and I really know very little about it. African countries tend to be pretty strict on the process of adoption to another country, requiring that the adoptive parents actually live in the African country for a period of time prior to any adoption happening. Private adoption would also likely entail similar restrictions. But I am not familiar with all the laws and rules. You may have explored them already.

Sponsoring a child is often the support from a distance that an individual child needs for schooling, food, security. Some individuals decide to do this through an organization or on a one-to-one basis. It certainly provides good support for children in need and is much less expensive and also keeps the child in their own cultural environment. (This piece entitled “A Small Act” was on CBC radio a few months ago can illustrate the value of this kind of support. http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/09/26/a-small-act-chris-mburu/ )

Individuals who support a child through organizations like World Vision can be sure that money that they donate is being used in the community where the child lives. Your “adopted” child benefits through the supprt that is given to the community for sanitation, education and health.

At the CanAssist African Relief Trust, we realize that it is impossible to help any one child specifically without overlooking someone else who may be as deserving. Our preference has been to provide help within a community or school that will, in some way, benefit all. CanAssist does not facilitate individual supportive programs for school fees, etc, but rather works to help within the community, using community leaders, teachers and health care workers to guide our work there.

You may have heard this talk that I did at a Chalmers United Church service in Kingston, Ontario a couple of years ago. My talk addresses this dilemma. A Youtube link to it is here:

I commend your interest in helping these vulnerable children.

There are, no doubt, families in Canada who would gladly “adopt” a struggling orphan child from a developing country. But it is not simple. Not only is the adoption process encumbered with discouraging red-tape, but rescuing one child leaves many others behind who are equally needy and deserving of support.

Through CanAssist we try to do what we can to help a community to improved water access, sanitation, health or education. Hopefully there will be many children who will benefit in some way from this process rather than by plucking just one for exceptional attention.”