Page: Ebola and the politics of fear
We must pay attention to the mistakes of history, some wise person once said, so we can do a better job of making them in the future. That’s how I feel during the current Ebola crisis when I see how well we Americans seem to be repeating the mistakes of the AIDS epidemic.
I thought we learned something, for example, from the case of Ryan White, who was forced to leave his Indiana middle school after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 after a tainted blood transfusion. Doctors said he posed no risk to other students, but because AIDS was so poorly understood and, therefore, frightening at the time, many parents and teachers rallied against his attendance.
In August 1990, four months after his death, his name is memorialized in the The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, the country’s largest federally funded program for low-income, uninsured and under-insured people living with HIV/AIDS.
Today the development of effective anti-viral cocktails makes us less likely to get hysterical about AIDS, but we have Ebola to get hysterical about.
We have, for example, the case of Michel du Cille, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photojournalist. He found himself suddenly disinvited from a Syracuse University journalism conference after he returned from an assignment photographing the Ebola crisis in Liberia.
Du Cille did not have Ebola. His own 21 days of watchful waiting as the virus’ incubation period passed, came to an end as the conference was about to begin last week. But, as a disappointed du Cille said in an interview with News Photographer magazine, the university “decided to jump in with the mass hysteria.”
The same might be said about Navarro College. The two-year school near Dallas decided to reject at least two Nigerian applicants under a new ban against “international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases,” the rejection letter said.
Since Texas also has had confirmed Ebola cases, observed Nigerian-American Idris Bello, the Texas resident who tweeted the letter to the world -- should colleges in other states start rejecting their applicants, too? Good question.
Haven’t we learned anything from our earlier mistakes about epidemics? In the AIDS frenzy of the 1980s, I diagnosed an “informtion deficiency syndrome” in the public. I am seeing similar symptoms appear now in what late-night comedian Seth Meyers calls “fearbola”:
1. “NMP”: a condition that makes people shrug off early news as “not my problem.”
At first, AIDS was thought to be a disease limited to Africa or Haiti, then to the gay community and users of dirty hypodermic needles. Marginalized people found themselves to be even more stigmatized.
A similar indifference greeted more recent news of Ebola’s recurrence in Africa. Would we have cared more if it had broken out closer to home? No doubt. Yet the world is getting smaller than many of us think.
2. Pull up the drawbridge: A reflexive impulse to close borders and otherwise physically isolate ourselves.
Only four years ago President Barack Obama finally lifted the useless ban on HIV-infected travelers imposed by the late Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1987 amendment. Now Obama is being pressured to close the borders and impose a new travel ban on West African nations to stop Ebola.
But U.S. airlines already have suspended direct flights between the United States and afflicted nations. Yet that doesn’t stop fliers like Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient who died in Texas. He flew to Dallas through a connecting flight in Europe.
Banning travel only would make it more difficult to track the disease, which would make it more likely to spread out of control.
3. Panic peddling by media and others: In today’s Twitter age, the old “We’re All Gonna Die” frenzy is only magnified. When you hear stories of families buying hazmat suits in bulk, you know that you’re in the middle of a full-blown media storm.
Fortunately, there’s some encouraging news, too. More than 40 people in Dallas have been released from quarantine after surviving the 21-day Ebola incubation period without showing symptoms. In West Africa, Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization after more than six weeks without a new case.
Yet, for too many of us, Ebola may be easier to contain than our irrational fears about it.
Clarence Page writes for The Washington Post.