The reality of capricious news cycles, now churning out distressing reports about Ferguson, Mo., and Bill Cosby, makes it easy to forget the Ebola epidemic. But not seeing stories on hourly news feeds doesn’t mean the public health crisis is over.
The latest injustice, reported last week, revealed devastating shortages of protective gear in hardest-hit West Africa, where 5,400 men, women and children have died from Ebola, and more than 15,000 have been sickened.
Meanwhile, U.S. hospitals, which have reported six cases and two deaths, are stockpiling Ebola gear, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Acknowledging these inequities, and devising thoughtful strategies for moving forward as global citizens, are among topics to be tackled at a forum Friday at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
The best part of the upcoming Minnesota Ebola Summit is that the global citizens who have planned it are all still in high school.
“It’s been awesome for me to watch them engage in the real work that adults do — planning, collaborating,” said Dion Crushshon, director of international and off-campus programs for the Blake School.
He jokes that had adults done the planning and collaborating, the conference wouldn’t be nearly as successful. Included in the lineup are Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Metropolitan Airports Commission emergency programs manager Kristi Rollwagen; the Minnesota Hospital Association’s Wendy Burt; Abdullah Kiatamba, director of African Immigrant Services, and Alice Karpeh, co-founder of the Rural Health Care Initiative.
In addition, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., will send a video clip, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has expressed an interest in participating.
“The fact that Franken contacted me,” Crushshon said, “was a result of the students.”
This year, for the first time, Crushshon devised a course called Global Theories, Local Realities. He wrote no curriculum. That was the 14 students’ job.
They broke into groups of two, each pair charged with devising a proposal that would lead them to becoming “change agents.” Their ideas represented a variety of individual passions, from delving into invasive species in Lake Minnetonka to terrorist recruitment prevention to transgender issues to educational reform.
Seniors Austin Echtenkamp and Isaac Frans focused on Ebola. Isaac was planning to visit Sierra Leone last summer with OneVillage Partners, a Minnesota-based nonprofit supporting economic development in that West African country.
“We were going to see what grassroots charity is all about,” Isaac said. “We wrote letters, learned about this community and this country.”
It was hard, he said, “to watch a small outbreak turn into this huge outbreak.” It was harder, still, “to realize that I lived in a place that cared, but people only cared when they thought it would come here.”
The trip was canceled two weeks before they were to depart. To keep awareness high, he and Austin decided to put on the Ebola Summit. They recruited five fellow students whose own proposals didn’t get the green light, and began reaching out to community organizations to partner with them.
OneVillage Partners was a slam-dunk. Founder Jeff Hall, who will speak at Friday’s conference, has two kids at Blake, and his wife is a Blake graduate.
A former Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, Hall has returned to West Africa many times and built lifelong relationships. While Ebola cases in Liberia and Guinea seem to be declining, he said, Sierra Leone remains devastated by the virus.
Ebola, like malaria, Hall said, is a disease of poverty. “Africans are just like us,” he said, noting that families avoiding hospitals are not doing so because of lack of knowledge.
“They’re not going to hospitals because it may be the last time they see a loved one,” he said.
He’s buoyed by the Blake students’ efforts. “For a high school group to do this, it’s empowering. It shows them that they can make a difference.”
Building empathy, at the conference and person-to-person, is crucial to committee member Eli Makovetsky. Eli, a senior, talked to members of the Student Ebola Action Committee at the U, and learned that “Ebola is not here and, because the United States is a First World country, it’s not going to spread here. But what can we do to help West Africa?
“We want to decrease the idea of separation and apathy.”
Junior Carly Bullock wants to put an end to Ebola jokes. “Someone coughs at school, and people say, ‘Oh, no, you have Ebola!’ But it’s not a joke,” she said, noting that the crisis hit home when a student at Blake’s lower school recently lost a grandfather to the disease.
“I can see myself having changed from it,” said Robyn Lipschultz, a junior who secured the 250-seat Cowles Auditorium for the forum. “Now I look at the news every day.”
Isaac said there is a “frustrating beauty” to working on a project like this. “I want to end the outbreak, but this summit isn’t going to do that,” he said.
“But this makes you think. We’re 17 and 18 and we’re able to contact senators and congresspeople.” Admitting that he sometimes can’t keep track of his backpack, Isaac said the Minnesota Ebola Summit has impressed his friends.
“That’s supercool,” they tell him. “You can actually do things.”