In a new feature, The New York Times inspects the specter of Ebola in Liberia. Unfortunately, the religious ghosts stay fairly well concealed.
The 1,700+ article does have its positives, including a lucid narrative of the virus spreading throughout Monrovia, the Liberian capital of 1.5 million. Here's the lede:
The girl in the pink shirt lay motionless on a sidewalk, flat on her stomach, an orange drink next to her, unfinished. People gathered on the other side of the street, careful to keep their distance.
Dr. Mosoka Fallah waded in. Details about the girl spilled out of the crowd in a dizzying torrent, gaining urgency with the siren of an approaching ambulance. The girl’s mother had died, almost certainly of Ebola. So had three other relatives. The girl herself was sick. The girl’s aunt, unable to get help, had left her on the sidewalk in despair. Other family members may have been infected. Still others had fled across this city.
Dr. Fallah, 44, calmly instructed leaders of the neighborhood — known as Capitol Hill, previously untouched by Ebola — how to deal with the family and protect their community. He promised to return later that day, and send more help in the morning. His words quelled the crowd, for the moment.
“This is a horrific case,” he said as he walked away. “It could be the start of a big one right here. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Fallah is the main character in this piece. He is presented variously as a medical troubleshooter, an adviser to community leaders, an ambassador for an incompetent national government, a spiritual seeker calling on his inner resources. You'll never guess which gets the least attention in this story.
The Times follows his efforts to deal with the outbreak: dividing the city into zones, mobilizing local residents, trying to trace who has been exposed. In the process, he has to cope with street gangs, swamped hospitals, and people's distrust of the government.
Now, the shortage of basic services can itself be seen as a social gospel value. The Times covers that with passages like this:
The government’s failure to provide basic services keeps undermining the trust he is trying to build. Burial teams take days to pick up the dead; ambulances — there are only about a half-dozen in the capital — respond to only a fraction of emergency calls. Those lucky enough to be transported to a treatment center are often turned back, taken home because of a shortage of beds, or left pleading at the gate for admission.
“The government has to keep its part of the bargain,” Dr. Fallah said, adding, “The community can do one thing for us. They can limit the spread. But they must see that their labor is leading to some fruit.”
An accompanying video illustrates the point. It shows a young man lying in the dirt outside the rusty sheet metal door of the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, uncertain if he can even get in. His father complains that the government just tells people to "wait, wait, wait."
So the social angle is prominent in this article. But this is Liberia, an overwhelmingly religious nation where more than 85 percent of the people are avowedly Christian and another 12 percent are Muslim. Downplaying the role of religion in Liberia is rather like downplaying the role of Cuban-Americans in Miami.
And how about asking for a quote from the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? In August, she called for three days of prayer and fasting. Prayer topics were to include "the elimination of Ebola and other pestilence from the country; prayer for comfort and strength for hurting families who have lost loved ones; prayer for healing and restoration of quarantined individuals in the land; prayer for the protection of health workers and other volunteers in harm’s way as they fight the deadly Ebola virus." Those would seem to be apropos for the Times story.
Church people do come up -- about 60 percent into the story -- but not favorably:
On the Sunday after the quarantine was lifted, churchgoers celebrated what many saw as West Point’s deliverance from Ebola. Inside the Dominion Life Church, next to an Ebola holding center, the faithful danced and — disregarding awareness campaigns to avoid touching and risk exchanging body fluids — shook hands and grasped one another’s arms with fervor.
“No, no, no, no,” the Rev. William Morlu, the church’s senior pastor, said when asked whether Ebola was present in West Point.
The Times also quotes someone at another church, who notes that Fallah himself once lived in a Monrovia slum. The quote appears to be mainly a transition for a little bio material.
We get four paragraphs on Fallah's rise from squalor through higher education to degrees at Harvard and the University of Kentucky. He returns to Liberia to open a maternal car clinic, then turns his skills to fighting Ebola.
We learn about volunteers who educate neighbors on the virus, including a group of youths who gather to hear Fallah at a church. So the house of God is shown at least once as a place for more than denials.
That's nice, but the story still leaves that religio-spiritual ghost flickering in the corners. What do the pastors say about the Ebola outbreak in general? Can they find words to encourage or inspire or otherwise help their congregations?
And what about the age-old question of why God allows people to suffer from plagues like Ebola? That issue, known as theodicy, is the central question that religions try to answer, according to some thinkers. One of them, Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a popular book on it -- When Bad Things Happen to Good People -- after his own son died of an incurable disease.
This is not an ivory-tower topic. Dr. Fallah himself raises it:
“I’m not saying I know the answer,” Dr. Fallah said later. “I’m struggling like any other person to find the answer — just have a lot of spirit and God. But one thing I’ve realized is that the people in the community, some of them have the answers.”
That would have been a prime opening to ask more about Fallah's own faith. Does he attend church? Which one and how often? Does it shape his work in other ways? And what does he mean by having a lot of spirit and God?
We don't know. That's the last paragraph in the article.
Likewise, the video interviews a coordinator with of Doctors Without Borders confessing his helplessness amid the wave of new Ebola cases. "At the moment, we are down on our knees," he says. "So who else is there?"
Who indeed. The questions lie motionless, just like the Ebola victim on the sidewalk. And like the bystanders, the Times is careful to keep its distance.
Photo: Young man with Ebola lies outside John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. From New York Times video, Dying of Ebola at the Hospital Door.