Not the glittering weapon fights the fight, says the proverb, but rather the hero’s heart.
Maybe this is true in any battle; it is surely true of a war that is waged with bleach and a prayer.
For decades, Ebola haunted rural African villages like some mythic monster that every few years rose to demand a human sacrifice and then returned to its cave. It reached the West only in nightmare form, a Hollywood horror that makes eyes bleed and organs dissolve and doctors despair because they have no cure.
But 2014 is the year an outbreak turned into an epidemic, powered by the very progress that has paved roads and raised cities and lifted millions out of poverty. This time it reached crowded slums in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; it traveled to Nigeria and Mali, to Spain, Germany and the U.S. It struck doctors and nurses in unprecedented numbers, wiping out a public-health infrastructure that was weak in the first place. One August day in Liberia, six pregnant women lost their babies when hospitals couldn’t admit them for complications. Anyone willing to treat Ebola victims ran the risk of becoming one.
Which brings us to the hero’s heart. There was little to stop the disease from spreading further. Governments weren’t equipped to respond; the World Health Organization was in denial and snarled in red tape. First responders were accused of crying wolf, even as the danger grew. But the people in the field, the special forces of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Christian medical-relief workers of Samaritan’s Purse and many others from all over the world fought side by side with local doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and burial teams.
Ask what drove them and some talk about God; some about 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 encountered pain like they had never known. “It hurts like they are busting your head with an ax,” 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 we do with what we’ve 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 from Monrovia to Manhattan. 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 our 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. 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 defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year.