Earlier this week President Obama called attention to the Ebola outbreak that is ravaging West Africa and pledged additional US support. This can be a clarion call for our community of travelers as well.

One of the powerful effects of international travel is the building of personal connections to previously unknown people and places.   Perhaps that’s what has been missing as the current Ebola crisis has unfolded.

Awareness and empathy are mighty catalysts in times of trouble. I still recall the outpouring of sympathy and support I received from overseas friends and colleagues in the days following September 11th.   They had visited New York City and they knew me.  America’s tragedy became personal.

West Africa is one of the least traveled parts of the world. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – ground zero for the Ebola crisis — are among the poorest countries. Living conditions can be basic and cultural traditions not so well understood outside the region.

That might be one reason why so far the Ebola virus has seemed largely the purview of doctors, humanitarian workers and CNN.   With no first-hand context, it’s not so easy for most of us to identify with a region where diet can include chimpanzee and antelope, and meals may be eaten from a shared bowl.

Yet there is a contagion and it is widening. The Ebola virus now is devastating a region where there are few doctors and few hospitals to begin with. With inadequate treatment and containment, Ebola infections are now growing exponentially, and civil unrest is spreading.   With a menace so virulent, there is a possibility of virus mutation and wider areas of infection if not controlled.

Medical, humanitarian and governmental groups are increasingly engaged. President Obama’s commitment to furnish more US support is a key step forward.  But more needs to be done to galvanize public support.

As travelers, we have come to understand the power of culture and to celebrate cultural differences. And that’s a worldview that is essential to productively grasp the current Ebola situation.   In West Africa, some of the local traditions held dear – kissing loved ones good bye in death, and cleaning and preparing the body of family members for burial – are actually fueling the contagion.   Defeating Ebola will require adaption of long-held individual and very personal practices (never easy for any of us), and compassion from the rest of the world.   It seems to me, this is when the community of travelers needs to step forward.

There are precedents for attitude-shaping initiatives within the travel community. Sustainable tourism is one notable example. As a community, we can embrace sustainable tourism that does not compromise people and places of the world, and also promote humanitarian efforts that advance them.

The Ebola crisis demands we move beyond sustainable tourism to global citizenship, where we as travelers choose to take responsibility for what the world becomes through the choices we make after we return home from our trips.   For the Ebola crisis, here some ways we can show our worldview:

  •  Support government funding to contain and treat the outbreak.
  • Donate to charities who are delivering treatment on the front lines.
  • Reach out to friends who have relatives in West Africa and express support.
  • Share your own “traveler’s perspective” on why Ebola has not received more attention earlier, and ask others to join in your support.

HI-USA’s community of travelers is informed, experienced and ingenious. New ways to spark wider collective action need to be found. If you have ideas, share them with me at russ.hedge@hiusa.org.

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