In the first of Georgetown’s Global Futures lectures last week, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group described the core mission of his development-based financial institution.
Kim aligned the goal for the World Bank Group — to end extreme poverty by 2030 — with the duty to provide a “preferential option for the poor,” a concept first coined by his friend Gustavo Gutierrez.
The Ebola crisis is an unfortunate example of the burden of an epidemic falling disproportionately on the poorest. Contrary to the panic and dramatization of American cases depicted by Western media, Ebola hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone the hardest. Crippled by years of internal conflict and corruption, these countries are some of the poorest in the world.
These impoverished conditions are matched with some of the most dysfunctional health systems today. They have health systems that gravely lack the capacity to respond to an epidemic that has taken nearly 9,000 lives to date.
Should we also be surprised that the bulk of the response, resources and money — outside of the actions of a few courageous, largely faith-based, first-responders — really were implemented and gathered only once white, non-African lives were endangered?
According to Kim, the Ebola survival rate in developed countries is over 80 percent, whereas the survival rate in developing countries is roughly 30 percent. These numbers relay to us the dire situation those in poverty experience during epidemics: a lack of medical resources, a lack of health care personnel, and an initially delayed and inefficient response by the international community.
Thus, when the leader of an organization that provides over $30 billion dollars in assistance to developing countries each year specifically calls for a preferential option for the poor, leaders in global health and citizens in the global community alike should be inspired to listen, reflect and, most importantly, act.
The former co-founder and executive director of Partners In Health is right in his twofold claim: The poor are the most affected by these types of outbreaks (including the endemic diseases like African trypanosomiasis, dengue fever, malaria and typhoid), and preventative and treatment measures need to be taken sooner to stop similar outbreaks in a more effective manner.
However, while I am aware that the purpose of his talk was to address the need to better prepare against pandemics, I was surprised by Kim’s failure to mention the disproportionate burden Ebola has on women, given his role as an advocate for those most marginalized by disease.
Women have fought courageously on Ebola frontlines. In the field, there are more women nurses than men nurses tending to the needs of sick patients. At home, women are caregivers of their families, bathing and taking care of their sick husbands or children, which only further increases their risk of exposure and transmission.
Because of social and cultural norms, Ebola afflicts women up to three times as often as it does men.
In Liberia, for example, 75 percent of Ebola victims have been women. Consequently, the Ebola outbreak offers just as much a commentary on gender inequity as it does on poverty.
A preferential option for the poor, therefore, inherently must include a preferential option for women. Knowing the gender burden of these viruses before they strike will better enable us to take gender-appropriate measures, such as equipping the female nurses that provide much of the health response in these countries.
This knowledge requires us to better inform mothers, sisters, and daughters about the mechanisms of transmission, methods of protection, and modes of treatment.
Performing these simple, prudent tasks will better protect the lives of everyone involved.
With the proper foresight, communities would be more inclined to have the emergency funds for which Kim implored countries to have, emergency funds that will notably protect both the poor and women.
We know the historic and present prejudices of diseases like Ebola; now it is time to change the course of the future — of both the disease response and the lives of those most stricken by disease — by converting mere recognition to swift, substantive action.
Spencer Crawford is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.