With the welcome word out of New York that the U.S. is currently Ebola free, and with ISIS largely now a footnote in the daily news cycle, it is clear that the actual outbreak within our borders these last few months was a contagious ignorance and irrational panic over foreign threats.
I am not downplaying the fact that Ebola and ISIS represent very real crises for West Africa and the Middle East respectively. Rather, I am highlighting the problem that neither issue became (or will remain) major stories in the U.S. until a handful of Americans were affected. And, in both cases, that’s when we started unreasonably losing our shit, particularly when it came to Ebola.
With the presence of one Ebola case…then two…then three, news outlets trained their cameras on every movement of each patient – here in this ambulance, there in that plane, from this hospital to that hospital. Politicians and pundits, against the advice of virtually all public health experts, clamored for travel bans and sealed borders.
Far right conservatives, who have spent the last few years carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and flipping out when the government so much as suggests their children eat healthier foods, now practically begged the government to tread on the free movement of people to and from affected countries and of returning health workers. Some governors obliged by forcing some of those health workers into medically unnecessary quarantines, just in case they got sick.
The targets of fear haven’t been merely those who have treated Ebola patients, or even those who have traveled to affected countries. In just one of many examples of unwarranted, if not uninformed fear, a Kentucky school asked that a teacher take a paid 21-day leave of absence after she returned from Kenya, a country that is over 3,000 miles away from the West African outbreak and has yet to have a single reported case.
Some Republican lawmakers creatively expanded the hot zone, with remarkable geography gymnastics, wondering if ISIS might send Ebola-sickened suicide bombers across our border. Even CNN got in on the silliness, airing discussion of the question: “Ebola: ‘The ISIS of Biological Agents?’”
But there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for us yet, ironically showing itself at Fox News of all places. A month ago, Shepard Smith, an occasional light within that heart of cable news darkness, made an impassioned case for perspective and a calm, reasoned assessment of the facts over Ebola. This, I think was his most important point:
“[This panic is] not productive…and we all need to stop it, because someday there may be a real panic. Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re going to have to do? We’re going to have to relax, and listen to leaders. We’re not going to panic when we’re supposed to, and we’re certainly not going to panic now. We have to stop it.”
Thus far, with regard to Ebola in the U.S., leaders who called for calm have been validated. All but one of the few Ebola patients treated in the U.S. have survived the virus. The two who were infected inside the country contracted the virus by treating a very sick patient, and, as it now stands, none of those infected has spread it to the general population.
Yet, I don’t expect we’ll heed Shepard Smith’s advice for very long. It has been said that government has “lurched from crisis to crisis” during the Obama era (of course, those have tended to be crises of our own making). The same can be said for the news media, which feeds off quickly produced (and quickly tossed aside) conflict, controversy, and fear, much of which is nurtured by the constant howls of partisan media.
You would expect Ebola-terrorism fever dreams or wondering if any given problem is “Obama’s Katrina” from conservative talk radio. But when CNN hosts are doing the same thing, something has gone terribly awry. We are increasingly in an everyday wolf-crying or Chicken Little environment that does not bode well for our ability to properly assess and respond to problems in ways that are measured to their true scale and to their true location.
Like Shepard Smith said, “We have to stop it.”