One of the most deadly diseases in recent memory has surfaced in the U.S.: Ebola — and while it poses a deadly threat, our nation’s biggest threat might be irrational fear. In fact, what the outbreak has revealed about the American ideology is arguably more grim and crude than the disease itself.
The World Health Organization reports that, since March, Ebola has killed just under 5,000 people — predominantly in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Guinea. In past outbreaks, upwards of 90 percent of those who contracted the disease died. The disease has recently found its way to the U.S., infecting a total of four people — even leaving one man dead.
Certainly, this warrants worry and caution — but it doesn’t warrant hysteria, a popular reaction from citizens and public officials.
Consider the following: A recent ABC News and Washington Post poll holds that two-thirds of Americans support restrictions on travel to and from countries hosting outbreaks. Speaker of the House John Boehner — along with various other lawmakers — called for President Obama to unilaterally ban travel to infected countries. Various states have implemented guidelines that surpass those enforced by the federal agency — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — that specializes in disease management. New York, California, Illinois and New Jersey recently imposed a three-week, mandatory quarantine for health-care workers who interacted with infected patients.
However, these policies have been, at best, superfluous — and, at worst, counter-productive. For one, the proposed travel restrictions would be insufficient. Only a handful of flights travel directly between the U.S. and infected countries and, if these restrictions were implemented, a person could simply make the same travel by connecting flights via other countries.
Banning travel between the U.S. and infected countries is not only impractical; it is also counter-productive. More specifically, travel restrictions would reduce the amount of health-care workers going to outbreak-stricken countries, which would, in turn, curtail efforts to eradicate the disease at its most active locations.
Mandatory quarantines are also problematic. First, they work to strongly de-incentivize workers from volunteering to help manage the disease. Second, quarantines are superfluous. As many health care officials have stressed, Ebola is not contagious until infected patients begin to show symptoms. Indeed, close and active monitoring by local health-care workers — the same guideline enforced by the CDC — accomplish the same as a quarantine, all without discouraging workers from volunteering to fight the disease.
Unfortunately, however, rationality has succumbed to unfounded hysteria — and we, as a nation, find ourselves in a counter-productive frenzy.
But what is more, this outbreak has also revealed our latent nationalistic supremacy; that is, our higher valuation of American lives relative to others. According to data from Google Trends, an app that tracks the popularity of topics in the news, news coverage and social media activity in the U.S. pertaining to Ebola radically spiked and peaked when cases emerged in the U.S. in early August and early October. Before and between those times, coverage was essentially non-existent. There was, in short, nothing to be said about the thousands of dying West Africans.
Ultimately, Ebola has only hit a nerve for Americans because it has infected a handful of people who look like us — a phenomenon that is partially explained by ethno-supremacy.
But this unfounded hysteria laced with ethno-supremacy doesn’t have to be. Indeed, the life of a materially poor West African woman is just as precious and valuable as the life of a five-year-old white child from the suburbs of Dallas. And with thoughtfulness, rationality and empathy, we can work to prevent the disease from infecting either.
As a people, we should start thinking and acting this way.