I won’t lie to you: being a germevangelist is not an enviable position when it comes to deadly pathogens.
It’s not just Ebola; others such as MERS, avian influenza, and tuberculosis also fit the bill. Trying to foster a good relationship with all microbes is hard when one of some 2.5 million different types is causing a health crisis. The dynamic balance between harmony and war is significantly shifted to the latter. In the meantime, you’re left having to figure out how to keep the calm.
I have tried my best to keep positive and even cheerful when discussing the crisis. Yet as I’ve learned, this may have been antagonistic to my goals as two specific criticisms have arisen. Both have touched me and I feel it would be best to discuss them here.
One critique I’ve faced is my unending buoyant and jubilant nature. In the face of such a serious disease with thousands of people dying, I may seem out of line with the generally serious tone. In one case, I’ve been asked outright whether I have a shady side in which I am rooting more for the virus than I am for humanity. This usually ends up with the question, do I love Ebola?
The answer isn’t a simple yes or no.
As a virus, Ebola fascinates me and does bring out my adoration. The ability of this small, thread-like entity to survive and thrive at the molecular and cellular level is astonishing. Even more incredible is how it has become a perfect pathogen. Although it does evolve (as does every other microorganism), it hasn’t changed the way it functions. Unlike so many other microbial species, Ebola’s stability is unique.
On the other hand, the effect Ebola has on a human population evokes not a traditional form of love but one comprising of overwhelming appreciation and respect. Despite all we know about this virus, how it infects, how it takes over the body, how it spreads and ultimately, how it kills; we are still unable to stop it from causing outbreaks and as we’ve seen in West Africa, an epidemic.
I also feel this virus commands a new level of commitment. A global outpouring is needed devoted to ending the pathogen’s spread and returning these countries to normalcy. But to ensure such a commitment exists, the tone has to be positive and upbeat. After all, no one wants to join a depressed movement.
Granted, I may have taken this a little too far but I hope my actions have helped to increase the belief Ebola can be stopped. The virus won’t cause a pandemic, it won’t kill the majority of the Earth’s population and most certainly, this epidemic, while taking a rather large toll, will come to an end. I also hope my cheerful nature reveals my optimism for more good news in the future rather than a rallying cry for the virus.
If not, I’d very much like to know.
The other criticism I’ve received involves my lack of acknowledgement of the fear evoked here at home. I have apparently balked at the rising tide of social apprehension choosing instead to point out Ebola is not a personal concern. Yet, this is continually countered by sporadic cases popping up – and their subsequent mishandling by officials – leaving a great number of people fearful for their lives.
I may seem indifferent to the panic but I do sense it. Yet instead of allowing people to give into it, I stress awareness is needed to move forward. Knowledge can instill the global population with purpose and motivate them to act. Then, instead of fear, the world can unleash something dramatically different in response.
I call it “Tough Love.”
Looking at all the psychological research done in the context of tough love, one common theme inevitably emerges: protect yourself. In a human to human relationship, this may mean taking a number of steps to ensure harm cannot be done. In a human to pathogen connection, the goal is to find a way to protect ourselves from any risk. As many options exist, the question turns to which one will offer the best protection.
The answer to the Ebola virus and to the resultant social Fearbola infection is without a doubt, a vaccine.
As with any other threat, if Ebola is difficult to control in society, then we need to take care of ourselves as individuals to avert panic and fear. As we have seen in the past, nothing works quite as well as vaccination. We’ve seen the same effect with other socially significant diseases, such as smallpox, polio, measles and even influenza. When we become vaccinated, we take charge of our health and give these pathogens the proverbial cold shoulder (or in this case, immune system).
Thankfully, there are two in the works and from the information to date, they are safe. Although I may be overly optimistic, I believe this will provide humanity with the best option into the future. We can protect not only the people most at risk such at those living in Ebola-prone zones, but also other individuals globally.
With this form of individual protection in place, worry can be diminished at the personal level. In turn, the potential for fear at the social level is reduced significantly. More importantly, those microbiologist who have love for the virus – not the effects – can continue to do their work while the rest of the population can rest assured their tough love will keep them safe.
In retrospect over the last few months, through tallying the accolades and criticisms, I realize a very simple but important rule I learned years ago truly applies: find love in everything you do. I’ve worked hard to adhere to it although I haven’t been perfect. The many mistakes I have made – and still make – have revealed love, particularly for microbes, is not an easy thing. That being said, I have gained insight into how to make it possible for germs.
As the title of my book illustrates, we need to “love the microbes.” To do this, also in accordance with my book, the first order of business is to stop worrying. Then, you must have a combination of appreciation, respect and commitment to the relationship, even if the only option is to protect yourself. Finally, and most importantly, once you have gained such love, you can share it with others so they too may be able to do the same. In this way, we might be able to develop a new kind of pandemic; one that is based in an infection of love, not fear.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts…