Each year, Time magazine chooses its person of the year. It does not have to be an individual, or even a person. It has been won by the Berlin Wall, Adolf Hitler (1938), but never by an individual woman. This year people thought that might change.
Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old girl, who survived an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, got over her near-fatal injuries and for advancing her ideals of equality and freedom, became the youngest recipient of Nobel Peace Prize, was surely a shoe-in for Time’s award.
But no, Time did not select Malala, but instead, a group, which included women, those of whom editor, Nancy Gibbs, said; “They risked and persisted, sacrificed and saved, in a war waged with bleach and prayer”; the doctors and nurses who fought Ebola.
For decades, Ebola had haunted rural African villages, but 2014 was the year an outbreak became an epidemic, one for which there is no cure.
It was powered by the progress that had paved roads, built cities and raised people out of poverty. It reached crowded slums in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; it travelled to Nigeria and Mali, Spain, Germany and the US. It struck doctors and nurses in unprecedented numbers, wiping out an already-weak public health structure. Anyone willing to treat Ebola victims, ran the risk of becoming one.
Governments were not equipped to respond to the epidemic, the WHO was in denial and hampered by red tape, so it was left up to those in the field, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Samaritan’s Purse, to fight Ebola side by side, with local doctors, nurses, abulance drivers and burial teams.
When asked what drove them, some spoke of God some of country, some about the instinct to run into the fire, not away. “If someone from America comes to help my people, and someone from Uganda,” says Iris Martor, a Liberian nurse, “then why can’t I?” Foday Gallah, an ambulance driver who survived infection, calls his immunity a holy gift. “I want to give my blood so a lot of people can be saved,” he says. “I am going to fight Ebola with all of my might.”
MSF nurse’s assistant, Salome Karwah, stayed at the bedsides of patients, bathing and feeding them, even after losing both her parents—who ran a medical clinic—in a single week and surviving Ebola herself. “It looked like God gave me a second chance to help others,” she says. Tiny children watched their families die, and no one could so much as hug them, because hugs could kill. “You see people facing death without their loved ones, only with people in space suits,” says MSF president Dr. Joanne Liu. “You should not die alone with space-suit men.”
Those who contracted the disease experienced pain like they had never known. “It hurts like they are busting your head with an axe,” Karwah says. One doctor overheard his funeral being planned. Asked if surviving Ebola changed him, Dr. Kent Brantly turns the question around. “I still have the same flaws that I did before,” he says. “But whenever we go through a devastating experience like what I’ve been through, it is an incredible opportunity for redemption of something. We can say, How can I be better now because of what I’ve been through? To not do that is kind of a shame.”
So that is the next challenge: What will be done with what has been learned? This was a test of the world’s ability to respond to potential pandemics, and it did not go well. It exposed corruption in African governments, along with complacency in Western capitals and jealousy among competing bureaucrats. It triggered mistrust everywhere. Each week brought new puzzles. How do you secure a country, beyond taking passengers’ temperatures at the airport? Who has the power to order citizens to stay home, to post a guard outside their door? What will it take to develop treatments for diseases largely confined to poor nations, even as this Ebola outbreak had taken far more lives by mid-October than all the earlier ones combined?
The death in Dallas of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed on U.S. soil, and the infection of two nurses who treated him, shook the faith in the ability of U.S. hospitals to handle this kind of disease. From there the road to full freak-out was a short one. An Ohio middle school closed because an employee had flown on the same plane as one of Duncan’s nurses. Not the same flight, just the same plane.
A Texas college rejected applicants from Nigeria, since that country had some “confirmed Ebola cases.” A Maine schoolteacher had to take a three-week leave because she went to a teachers’ conference in Dallas. Fear, too, was global. When a nurse in Spain contracted Ebola from a priest, Spanish authorities killed her dog as a precaution, while #VamosAMorirTodos (We’re all going to die) trended on Twitter. Guests at a hotel in Macedonia were trapped in their rooms for days after a British guest got sick and died. It turned out to have nothing to do with Ebola.
The problem with irrational responses is that they can cloud the need for rational ones. Just when the world needed more medical volunteers, the price of serving soared. When nurse Kaci Hickox, returning from a stint with MSF in Sierra Leone with no symptoms and a negative blood test, was quarantined in a tent in Newark, N.J., by a combustible governor, it forced a reckoning. “It is crazy we are spending so much time having this debate about how to safely monitor people coming back from Ebola-endemic countries,” says Hickox, “when the one thing we can do to protect the population is to stop the outbreak in West Africa.”
Ebola is a war, and a warning. The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease, and “us” means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day. The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight. For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defences, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters became TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year.