Message from the Dean: Compassion in the Time of Ebola

November 26, 2014

In Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez explored the relationships between love, passion, and anger.  We see, among other things, how an unrequited love can plague us to no end, physically and mentally.  And, just as a love denied can become heated, even choleric, compassion in the time of Ebola can hemorrage fatally.  This is surprising, since compassion is one of those rational emotions that we feel for particular people, in particular circumstances, for particular reasons.  It seizes on our compassion and cruelly diminishes our ability to act rationally.

Health care workers—for example, midwives treating infected mothers—and caring family members facing Ebola become at once its victims and transmitters.  Even if they take extraordinary precautions in treating their patients, infection is still possible.  Even if they avoid the most dangerous traditonal burial rites, such as washing the body of the deceased, their love for a family member will put them at grave risk.  We assume the best caregivers are those who act with compassion, but in the time of Ebola unrestrained compassion can fuel the epidemic, not retard its flames.

Ebola has reached unprecedented levels in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and it now has moved across the border into Mali.  Health care workers in Mali treating an imam from Guinea have succumbed to the disease, as have family members of the imam who have insisted on providing him with a proper religious burial. Over 300 people in Mali have been quarantined because of their contact with this cluster of five deaths, and as of today two new cases of the disease have been identified. 

Among those in quarantine for Ebola in Mali are nine United Nations peacekeeping forces who were receiving treatment unrelated to Ebola at the same clinic in the capital city of Bamako where the imam was seen. Since 2013 the peacekeepers have been stationed in the northern territories of Mali to control the violence between the Malian army, civilians, and well-armed rebel and separatist fighters.  Thirty UN peacekeepers have been killed, including 10 last month, and 90 more have been injured since July 2013.  Peacekeepers, like caregivers, find themselves in a situation in which unguarded compassion can be fatal.

Before my return to the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University after spending five out of the last six months in Mali, I will have to go through a three-week intensive screening to see if I am infected with the Ebola virus.  It is a small inconvenience compared to the price that others have paid.  I did not come to Mali because of Ebola. I came, initially with my RCAH students (who left before Ebola arrived), to respond to the coup and occupation of 2012-13 through a local dialogue project on truth, justice, and reconciliation. While these recent events focused international attention on the need for this kind of work in Mali, the problem goes back much further.

Since Independence from French colonial rule in 1961, Mali has been the recipient of government-to-government international development assistance now amounting to roughly 60 percent of its annual budget. Instead of being fairly distributed, much of this donor aid has encouraged political corruption, uneven development throughout the country, and a series of unresolved grievances and periodic violence. Public services from health care and education to energy and transportation are unreliable at best. Food security is a continung challenge. The university system has been particularly hard hit, the learning conditions are inadequate and so teachers and students regularly go on strike. In 2012 widespread disapproval of the governent finally led to the overthrow of the democratically elected president by lower-echelon officers unwilling to tolerate corruption among their superiors. The coup precipitated a reign of near-terror, beginning in the North and reaching over half the country, by heavily armed separatists and Islamists who easily overpowered the fragmented Malian army.  On a smaller scale, but no less brutal, the coup leaders imposed their own reign of near-terror on journalists and soldiers who criticized or opposed them.

Despite this pestilent corruption and violence, Mali continues to have a distinctive moral economy, not based so much on gifting as on hospitality, tolerance, and consensus.  One might even say that there are two Malis.  The official inefficient and corrupt Mali that benefits government functionaries and contractors, and a Malian civil society of women’s associations, farmers, and small landholders who try to adhere to the principles of its moral economy as much as they can.  For example, a tradition of inter-familial peaceful conflict resolution (“joking cousins”) and a form of Islam with its own prayer economy that has existed alongside small Christian religious sects and diverse traditional religious practices have both predated Independence.  Since then there have been efforts to create regular decentralized political assemblies in which citizens can pose questions to political officials and debate policies.  Hospitality, tolerance, and consensus have defined the profile of compassion in Mali.

However, these moral sentiments have not been enough to restore order and create a peaceful and more just society over the past year, and the new government continues to struggle with its old problems.  It is internally divided and lacks credibility in the international community. Compassion for the victims of the coup and occupation has not been acted on. Reconciliation between separatist forces in the North and other ethnic and religious groups throughout the country remains unrealized.  Nor has punishment for those responsible for human rights violations, theft, and corruption occurred to the satisfaction of most Malians. A peace process in Algiers has left the elected Malian government on the outside looking in as the international community listens to the insistent demands of separatist factions. Now, in addition, Mali faces Ebola which strikes at the heart of its beleaguered moral economy, but has also begun to affect commerce and development indirectly. 

My work in Mali at the Ciwara School and Institute for Popular Education in Kati has been on the limits of and alternatives to compassion, not in health care, but in the peace and reconciliation process in Mali. Starting in July, my small group of RCAH students began working with Ciwara School teachers and students from the University of Bamako to construct a series of local dialogue forums for residents of Kati who had experienced the violence resulting from the coup and occupation. We interviewed women and children who were attacked, who lost their homes, and property, and whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the conflict. We reenacted and re-presented their stories in various ways from fabric art and photography to poetry, theatre, and dance in order to prompt dialogue and discussion.   

Our primary goal was not merely to show compassion, although that certainly happened.  Our primary goal was to give those who have been stigmatized, traumatized, and unjustly treated a forum in which to discuss critically their current needs as well as their past grievances. We wanted to help them assert themselves and at the same time demand that political responsibility be taken by those at fault or complicit as bystanders benefiting from the violence that had been done during the coup, the occupation, and its aftermath.

When the Ciwara School opened in early October, I continued to work with Ciwara teachers to compose picture books telling similar stories for their younger students and to create a “Mali Peace Game” in which forty 8th and 9th grade students learned more about the multi-dimensions of the crisis and possible ways of resolving it non-violently.  The game, modeled on John Hunter’s World Peace Game, helps students learn about the temptations, traps, and consequences of violence through a simulation. In our case, a simulaton of the conflicts in Mali includes ethnic, environmental, economic, political, and now a new public health crisis.

The French sociologist Didier Fassin has warned that relying exclusively on compassion, sympathy, and empathy to address crises such as these is not merely insufficient.  It can undermine our commitment to justice and obscure the difference between individual moral sentiments and collective political responsibilities. Most of us may indeed be hard wired, to use a popular metaphor, to feel more compassion for one suffering individual than for many. But, that does not relieve us of our political responsibilities for the many.  On the contrary, I would argue, it requires that we think more clearly about how to ground those political responsibilities more securely, especially at a time when acting on compassion proves so dangerous.

The danger of relying heavily and exclusively on compassion to solve societal crises is not just a danger for the individual caregiver who may become jaded. Fassin has examined the limits of the moral economy in similar contexts involving France and its former colonies, including Mali, and found it wanting in other respects (Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, 2012).  Justice, he argues, has been replaced by suffering and compassion, as the goal of politics.  This is true among governments where alleviating suffering has become a justification for more frequent military interventions in which the value of some lives is weighted much more heavily than the value of others, and in civil society, where businesses and voluntary organizations chide us to sign an inter-denominational “Charter for Compassion” yet ignore the unequal treatment that accompanies compassion for some at the expense of the mistreatment of others. Fassin believes that this shift has not been healthy. Through a close study of the treatment of refugees seeking political asylum and immigrant groups appealing for entry into France on the basis of health emergencies, he shows that despite the language of suffering and compassion, the actual decisions made by professionals, experts, and political officials who are responsible in these situations are governed by their morally arbitrary exercise of power. They may speak the language of humanitarianism, but their actions do not live up to their words.  Freed from the imperatives of justice, an untethered humanitarianism has left the weakest and poorest at the mercy of arbitrary authority.

Caught between arbitrary professional authority that has failed to minister effectively to suffering and a corrupt state that has abdicated its democratic responsibility, where can Malians turn? Our dialogue project in Mali seeks to ground compassion in local political responsibility.  It is a modest experiment, though by no means the only one of its kind; for example, we have benefited considerably from the work of the international NGO Interpeace and its Malian affiliate, Institut Malien de Recherche Action pour la Paix.  In the time of Ebola when the limits of compassion as a practical ethic seem to be even more evident, we have tried to provide a forum in which collective political responsibilities for injustice can be discussed and acted upon. In the case of the Ciwara School the actions include a new peace and justice curriculum and local dialogue forum built around our Malian Peace Game and a series of storybook projects written by students themselves in French, English, and their traditional languages in which crises of injustice as well as suffering are presented.

In this photograph the head of one of the four fictional countries that occupy the place of Mali on the world map is presenting his country’s response to a “crisis of terrorism” that has broken out across the region.  The proposal will be followed by a period of negotations, alliances, and actions by all four countries mediated by international and regional organizations.  This is one of 20 crises which the students will address over a 16-week period.  The Game will be coupled with a set of reflection projects in which small teams of students will tell the stories of the Game as they have experienced it in visual and performance art presentations.  These stories will be the catalysts and prompts for local community dialogues about the actual crises that have riddled Mali.


By combining compassion and political responsibility through these presentations and local dialogue forums, we hope to strengthen both of them.  Our hope is that out of processes like this one will come a new generation of citizens who will understand that compassion cannot be a substitute for democratically elected and controlled political institutions. Instead, compassion should be part of a moral economy regulated by higher order principles of political responsibility. Similarly, political responsibility will no longer be the exclusive duty of insulated government functionaries acting arbitrarily according to their professional notions of safety and security. Instead, political responsibility should be a set of principles for democratic politics that can check and guide this moral economy toward justice.

This is a lot to ask of local dialogues. Now’s the time, if ever there was one. Instead of clicking on the new member link to the “Charter for Compassion,” we should be spending time listening to those who have become all too visible as objects of compassion and all too easily forgotten once we have expressed our compassion for them through a donation, a missionary visit, or some other heartfelt expression of sympathy.  Then, we will be in a better position to join them on Addams’ common road toward  democratic citizenship.  Embracing humanity, as alluring an ideal as it may be, is not a shortcut around this hard work. We know all too well what inequality can be condoned and what injustice can be done in the name of humanity.

The photo above is also from Kati, and is of the “English for Us” club that meets weekly to discuss current events in English. They recently met to talk about the status of the National Commission for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Mali and about the recent US midterm elections.