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Ebola Isn’t a Problem in the U.S.
Hysteria and Xenophobia Are.

| October 26, 2014

It's a problem. But not for the West. (European Commission)

It’s a problem. But not for the West. (European Commission)

One of Philip Roth’s last books, published four years ago, was called “Nemesis.” It takes place in Newark in 1944. A polio epidemic is ravaging the city. There’s panic. There’s suspicion. There’s racism and other forms of bigotry as Jews or the disabled are accused of being carriers. At the time no one knew how polio was transmitted. People acted as if hysteria were an antidote. They indulged it more than common sense.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive There’s a lot of that with Ebola. As long as Africans were dying by the hundred every week, it was just another cataclysm to catch a glimpse of on TV between a snack and a channel flip. The moment it struck one, then two people on the American mainland, it was suddenly as if the country was under siege. One college in Texas stopped accepting students from some West African countries. Some Liberians in Dallas are being refused jobs or service in restaurants.

A former colleague of mine who now lives in Chicago posted on her Facebook page that she got all panicky when a guy nearby started coughing uncontrollably. He must have been black, because of course the hysterical response is impossible to divorce from racist impulses. No one ever called for an end to flights to England during the Mad Cow epidemic, or to China during the bird flu epidemic, or to New York city and San Francisco, for that matter, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.


But a frightening number of responsible people have taken up Donald Trump’s deranged calls to end flights to and from West Africa, among them our own Congressman, Ron DeSantis, who tends to sneeze expedience. Travel bans would only isolate those suffering the most from the epidemic from the medical care they so desperately need. Keep this in mind: Liberia, a country of 4 million people, has just 250 doctors left. We have more doctors than that in Palm Coast, and too many of them are treating ingrown toe nails.

Ebola takes us beyond the heart of darkness. Richard Preston 20 years ago described it as doing to the body in 10 days what AIDS takes 10 years to do. It reduces you to slime from the inside out. It’s not a new disease, except to Western blinders. The first known outbreak, in Zaire in 1976, was almost contemporary with the first outbreak of AIDS. An Ebola mutant was discovered in 1989 in a group of imported and quarantined monkeys in Reston, Va., triggering the government’s fevered response that Preston first documented in a New Yorker article. There’s been about two dozen Ebola outbreaks in Africa since, none as devastating as this year’s.

Currently West Africa is experiencing 1,000 new cases a week. The World Health Organization says that by December the rate could reach 10,000 new cases a week. So far 5,000 people have died of the disease in eight West African countries. That’s where the trouble is.

But there is not going to be an Ebola epidemic in the United States. There isn’t one now. There won’t be one in the future, unless it mutates into the kind of virus that can be transmitted by air rather than by contact. That’s about as unlikely as Foxed-up xenophobes mutating into tolerant humanists. The disease thrives where sanitary conditions and health care systems don’t. We may have a few cases in the United States. But the flu will kill more people in Palm Coast this winter than Ebola will in the entire nation.

Ebola is an epidemic only in Africa, and it’ll get worse only if we worry more about freak cases here than we do about the thousands of cases over there. West Africa doesn’t have the means to fight this epidemic. Only the West does. This is not the time to revisit and globalize the nemesis of segregation. But America’s reaction has been little short of that, condemning West Africa to much worse to come, and with that heightening rather than arresting risks of Ebola spreading beyond Africa.

It’s nowhere near too late for the most powerful nation on earth to stop acting like a third-rate power rediscovering its inner cowardice. Ebola is having a hard time claiming victims in the United States. Thomas Eric Duncan remains the only person to have died of it in the United States, after contracting the disease in Liberia. The Dallas hospital’s initial response on his first visit was disastrous. But it had nothing to do with government and everything to do with a private hospital’s not-unusual flubs. That original flub, delaying treatment, may have cost Duncan his life.

Amber Vinson and Nina Pham, the two Dallas nurses who contracted the disease after coming in contact with Duncan,  have recovered. Pham was at the White House getting a hug from President Obama this week, a few hours after her discharge from hospital. Without doubt more than a few hearts sickened by a disease far worse than Ebola must have fluttered at the thought that  maybe, just maybe, Pham could still pass on a couple of lingering microbes. Most of us celebrated the president’s hug and the sickos’ dashed hopes.

Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol, who contracted the disease in Liberia and were flown to the United States for treatment–to the lurid horror of Trump-and-DeSantis types–have also recovered and been discharged. None of those recoveries garnered the sort of attention the four people drew when they had the disease. The media are still at least four recoveries behind, preferring to focus on their next bleak hope: Craig Spencer, the heroicDoctors Without Borders volunteer who returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, then developed symptoms in New York City.

Because that case developed in the heart of the media and neuroses capital of the world, it’s given Ebola hysterics a new lease on myths and distortions, and the needless 21-day quarantines New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have imposed on health care workers returning from Ebola zones in Africa. Testing negative appears to be irrelevant to a breed of politicians at ease denigrating science in the face of voodoo fears. It’s the consequence of two decades of war on science. In a society of vaccine deniers, global warming deniers, evolution deniers, extinction deniers and stem cell deniers, denying evidence is second nature. It’s the alarmist’s Xanax.

Ebola isn’t sweeping the nation like Polio. But political opportunism on Capitol Hill and double standards everywhere else very much are. If there’s a lack of preparedness, it’s for the wrong disease. We’re not lacking for any here. Imagine for example if Ronald Reagan’s reaction had been that swift when first alerted to AIDS in 1981, instead of murderously waiting until 1987 to first mention it publicly, by which time 21,000 Americans had died of the disease. Fifteen thousand Americans are still dying of it every year. That’s an epidemic worth getting angry about. But of courses since gays are still disproportionately the victims, good, god-fearing Americans who think homosexuality an abomination and AIDS deaths mere payback never got on the CDC’s case over that one anymore than the alarmists are getting too worked up over a few thousand Africans dying. Every generation needs its Middle Passage.

It’s been more fun to howl about  invented government incompetence over an invented crisis. And it’s given segregationsists, who never lose their old-time religion, a new crusade. There are smarter ways to deal with Ebola on our shores, starting with calming down. You’ll live longer.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here and follow him on twitter @pierretristam.

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8 Responses for “Ebola Isn’t a Problem in the U.S.
Hysteria and Xenophobia Are.”

  1. Yellowstone says:

    Much like the African HIV/AIDS . . . this disease has been known about for 40 years! Just like HIV/AIDs it was ignored and now considered a threat – because why? Yep, you guessed it rainbow of phobias.

    Now that that Ebola has infected a few of ‘our own’ it’s a threat. According the GOP line (Lindsey Graham) “It’s gunna kill us all!”

    So get your tuct tape and seal all the doors and windows (Bush’s Homeland Security). Buy flashlight batteries – because the power is gunna be shutoff.

    While your at it . . . dig a hole in your backyard and fill it with bottled water and six-months of food.

    The boogey man is coming!

  2. Nancy N says:

    Thanks to the racism and xenophobia of Chris Christie, Nurse Kaci Hickox is being held against her will without access to her lawyer in conditions that are worse than we house our prisoners at Guantanamo in. This woman is a hero who risked her own safety and went to a foreign country to do a difficult job helping people in desperate need. Our thanks to her is this? It’s appalling, un-American, and unconstitutional, not to mention a violation of international human rights laws. The fact that this is being done at the demand of the American people for political expediency by our “leaders” makes me sick.

  3. Jamie says:

    Exactly the point Pierre. Journalism used to have editors. Where is David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite reporting what editors cleared? Editors used to have a vital role in screening what the journalists reported. They are gone and hence “reporters” read from the Internet that the pilots names from Asiana Airlines names were:
    “Som Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo”. The press has failed us as a profession. Hence, freedom of the press has become a megaphone of opinion. Long live the honorable editors, if they even exist anymore.
    The flu will kill tens of thousands this season, so where is the flu czar? Keep selling advertising, press. It’s a business afterall, not a profession. Just be more honest about it.

  4. Seminole Pride says:

    We live in a time where everything is controlled by the MEDIA. Yes even you Pierre can sensationlize a story that can bring affect the public interest and provoke emotion. Look how many wars or elections have been swayed by the media. Most of us need to take into consideration that the media is strictly entertainment, and only that source opinion..

  5. Concerned says:

    I find it interesting that most Americans don’t know that the laws in most states and federally changed back in 2003ish, depending on your state or the Feds, etc, so that it is perfectly legal to quarantine our citizenry – and the govt. doesn’t really even need Ebola to do it. An agent of most states’ governors’ or of the prez can point at you, say you’re suspected of disease, take you away, give you drugs, hold you as long as they like, not tell you what they think you have or what they’re injecting into your body and it is all the law of the land. People, did mostly none of Us really not read the USA Patriot Act? Really? SCOTUS has not had to rule on this part of it yet, but habaes corpus was around since 1250 and look where that ideal ended up…

  6. ECola says:

    Oh no…I think I have the New and Improved version called : ECola, yep I got it. I can’t stop drinking Coca Cola drinks. If I do, I break out in sweats and pee thru my ears. I’m going to quarantine myself for 21 days. Good thing I got 6 cases of Coke under the bed.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The federal government likes to scare us to gain more control. Ebola may be the reason for all the FEMA CASKETS…google that one. We better get ready…

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