You could hear the contempt ooze out of the news reporter’s mouth as a brief clip of a protest over a dog being put down flashed up in the middle of a story on the Ebola outbreak.
The dog, called Excalibur, was owned by Teresa Romero, the Spanish nurse who died of Ebola and so was the first to do so on European soil in the ongoing 2014 outbreak. Excalibur was put down and incinerated on the off-chance that he might be a vector for the disease, kicking off widespread protests. For the right-thinking journalist, this was beyond the pale.
After all, the news reporter sniffed, in the midst of this human tragedy, with thousands dead in Africa, why are these idiots getting upset over a mere dog? But as is often the case in life, the situation was more complex than the journalist could grasp.
To begin with, Romero’s widower, himself locked up (by necessity) in quarantine, was the one who spoke out against Excalibur being put down. Having lost his wife, all that remained of his family was the dog, and he wasn’t about to lose him too. As any dog owner will tell you, if the bond is strong enough, losing your dog is like losing a person. This is one of those muddying-the-water moments that journalists hate, keen as they are to reduce everything to a trite sermon.
Secondly, being compassionate is not a zero sum game – if you reduce it to a pissing contest, it stops being compassion and starts being moral point scoring. At the time of writing, and according to the Center for Disease Control, there have been 8,033 reported cases of Ebola in Africa – of these there have been 3,865 deaths. Can you imagine the scale of suffering, and the loss? It’s unbearable to think about it.
627,000 people in 2012 alone,
according to the WHO, which is more
than the total UK death toll for WW2.
Yet did you know that another tropical disease killed 219 Americans in 2012? The West Nile Virus outbreak, spread by mosquitos, and first identified in Africa, was particularly lethal in Texas where the USA’s first Ebola death this year was also recorded. While it lead to a state of emergency in Texas, and there have been several European outbreaks during the last 20 years, the story didn’t catch on in the wider mediasphere. Malaria, meanwhile, killed around 627,000 people in 2012 alone, according to the WHO, which is more than the total UK death toll for WW2. They’re not called ‘neglected tropical diseases’ for nothing.
But can you see what I’m up to? I’m trying to make you feel guilty for being sad over Ebola when there are other diseases out there that are also killing people. Guilt trip ahoy! What I’m really doing, however, is engaging in that most pernicious of fallacies, the false dichotomy. I’m trying to make you choose when in fact there isn’t a choice to be made in the first place.
Put simply, suffering is not something you stick on a high score table. It just is. For those who are burying their loved ones in Africa right now, the personal scale of their grief blots everything else out. And that’s reasonable, as is mourning all the other deaths, or feeling shame and grief for what has befallen so many young people in Rotherham. There’s only so much suffering you can allow into your psyche at any given time, but the point is that you feel it in the first place.
Only a psychopath would reduce empathy to an exercise in accountancy, of course, and yet it seems that’s something we, or at least the media, all too readily do. When you fetishise grief, you utterly devalue it. When you use it as a stick to beat others by, you corrupt it beyond words.
The Excalibur case, however, is disturbing in another way. Without much in the way of evidence – the jury’s out on whether dogs can even catch or spread Ebola – or considering alternatives like quarantine, the Spanish state took the dog and put it down regardless. Bureaucratic spite and political machismo aside, it doesn’t bode well for how our governments will respond if there is a major Ebola outbreak outside of Africa.
If you can’t trust governments to be kind to a dog that might not have been ill in the first place and when things aren’t all that parlous, can you imagine what it will be like if things really go wrong? We may all soon realise it’s a dog’s life for everyone.
Virus image: freedigitalphotos.net/renjith krishnan
Dog illustration by Dan Booth not to be reproduced without his express prior permission
Alexander Hay is a writer and polemicist based online and in print.