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.
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.
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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.