The absolute hysteria surrounding the Ebola crisis underscores what is wrong with our politics and the policies they spawn. On Ebola, the possible has overtaken the probable, gobbling it up in a high-anxiety, low-information frenzy of frayed nerves and Purell-ed hands. There have been nine cases of Ebola in this country. All but one, a Liberian immigrant, is alive. We aren’t battling a virus in this country as much as a mania, one whipped up by reactionary politicians and irresponsible media. We should be following the science in responding to the threat, but instead we are being led by silliness. And that comes at heavy cost.
The best way to prevent Ebola from becoming a pandemic is to stop it at its source — in West Africa, where the disease is truly exacting a heavy toll with thousands dead and thousands more infected. But the countries in that region can’t do it alone. They need help. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said on Tuesday, “We’ll need a steady state of at least 5,000 health workers from outside the region” to fight Ebola in West Africa. That means healthcare workers from other countries, including ours.
Many of our healthcare workers are heroically heeding the clarion call. They are volunteering to head into harm’s way, to put their own lives on the line to save others and to prevent the disease from spreading further. But upon returning to this country some now risk “mandatory quarantine” even if they test negative for the disease and are asymptomatic. The public face of the affront to basic science, civil liberties and displays of valour has become the nurse Kaci Hickox. She accepted an assignment with Doctors Without Borders in Ebola-plagued Sierra Leone. But upon returning to the United States, she was quarantined in a plastic tent in a Newark hospital even after testing negative for the virus. She has been transferred to Maine, but there is a state trooper stationed outside the house where she’s staying. Hickox is a paladin being treated like a leper.
It would be bad enough if there were just a momentary inconvenience or a legally contestable rights infringement. But it may be more than that. It could deter other healthcare workers like Hickox from volunteering in the first place. In other words, irrational governors, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, taking ill-advised steps to control the spread of the disease on a local level could help it to spread on a global one. That is in part why overly aggressive state-level restrictions have been roundly condemned.
As the World Health Organisation’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, recently pointed out: “The outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities. The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die.” Chan also pointed out that there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola — some 40 years after it emerged — in part because “Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations.
And, on the domestic front, it must not go unmentioned that elections are fast approaching and that politicians are acting — directly or not — out of political self-interest.
In that way, the federal response to Ebola becomes just another opportunity to argue that the federal government is ineffectual, incompetent and out of its depth, particularly under this president. And, in an election year, appearing to be more aggressive than the federal government, while riding a wave of fear, is appealing. Fear has become — and to some degree, has always been — a highly exploitable commodity in the political and media marketplaces. Both profit from public anxiety.
The New York Times
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