Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How None of Us Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebola

I cannot believe -- and yet, I can -- how Ebola in the USA has been twisted into a political issue.

Leave it to the U.S.of.A., where all-or-nothing is the name of the game. Last week, if you're one of my "smart" and "rational" friends, you were supposed to post to Facebook at least once a day that the "panic" about Ebola was unwarranted and that you were far more concerned about (take your pick:) measles/flu/guns/unvaccinated children/marrying a Kardashian. If you were one of my wary-of-Obama friends, you were supposed to unleash a screed about federal/CDC incompetence and insecure borders.  If you were in New York, you were encouraged to be nervous and show your support for the mayor's swift action in response to the guy who rode the subway and bowled, because apparently liking the mayor is politically acceptable. But whoa, once the governor of New Jersey got involved with a detained nurse, it was time to start ranting about human rights, because Christie is apparently scandalous and likes to play with the forces of disorder, and traffic, for reasons best known to himself, or maybe he's just a Republican and therefore is surely denying someone of some civil liberty or other at all times.

If you were, say, me, and you had been following the Ebola-in-West-Africa story since the middle of the summer, fascinated by the facts (note: facts) since well before last month when apparently the "American people" "began" "following" it, and you had spent three of the formative Ebola-in-North-America weeks getting your news in the E.U., you might just feel a little bewildered, as you so often do, by your countrypeople.

I don't actually know a single person who is panicked about catching Ebola, but I do know a whole lot of people responding to "all" the "panic." For one thing, every journalist who writes a line like "folks are in a panic about Ebola" should be required to cite three examples of the alleged "panic" before continuing with the story. On the other hand, delightful stories about the good-humored cruise ship passengers, grateful for their vouchers and compensation from the "SS Ebola" that was not allowed to dock in Mexico, are much appreciated.

Now, regarding quarantines: you're supposed to pick a side here, too, of course, but all of the To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine talk obscures the actual issue, which is a lack of globally organized official universally enforced protocol.

As for Kaci Hickox, my goodness. Regarding how she comes across in the media, is this really the best she can do? My understanding is that she is trying to be some kind of light on a hill, speaking up and speaking out on behalf of all those (all? who?) who will come after and be subject to the terrible deprivations of human rights she experienced and blah, blah, blah. Well, I find her a bit annoying, to be honest. Why? Because I read her editorial. Her actual words (or, if ghostwritten, which I suppose is likely, the actual words she is claiming for her own). They were pretty terrible, those words. Lots of emotional manipulation (but, the C-minus kind, that actually fails to manipulate, thus not even rising to the level of a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book) and a whole lot of intellectual disconnect, which is never exactly reassuring in a nurse. I mean, come on, lady. "What had I done wrong?" She said that a lot. "Wondering why this was happening to me." Are you actually serious? I mean, do you actually have any access to any media whatsoever? Yeah, uh, that's why this is "happening" to you, fresh off the plane from Sierra Leone. And just kind of by the way, leave your exhausting-layover-poor-pitiful-me -two-days-of-international-travel out of it. Because get over it. You're not the only person who has crossed an ocean and been tired upon arriving in your homeland. Enough. Whoever wanted a poster child for the Don't-Overreact-to-Ebola cause picked the wrong one. (Although, I am painfully aware that in a world where The Hunger Games and Gone Girl are considered to be well written, she might actually, tragically be the right one.)

I suppose there's nothing to be done if Amber Vinson and Craig Spencer and Kaci Hickox (oh, Andy, if you only knew how very many ways there are to get your fifteen!) want to be all defiantly cavalier about being out and about in the world, what with their professional know-how and their it's-so-hard-to-catch, and they want to go gallivanting off to bowling night and wedding planning weekend and other essential life events in the hours before they become symptomatic, but the disingenuous cries of what's-everybody-in-a-fuss-about have just got to stop. People are concerned (note: not in a fuss, actually, turns out) because they do not want a hemorrhagic fever that causes them to bleed and spew from multiple openings. They would like to just learn about interesting developing new stories in the world without having everyone falling all over themselves to prove that they are not hysterical by inventing more hysteria about the alleged hysteria. Being interested in Ebola does not mean "I am terrified I'm going to catch it," Wondering just what the hell a 21-day monitoring period consists of when it doesn't consist of, you know, monitoring is actually a fairly rational question.

And don't even get me started about the heroes. Actually, I'm a little shocked and awed (see what I did there?) by how quickly people have taken to this whole healthcare-volunteers-in-Africa-are-heroes storyline, particularly because of the word choice. "These heroes should be respected upon their return," intone the talking heads (and writing hands). "Heroes," says Obama. "Heroes," says Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois. Heroes, heroes, heroes. What must our military heroes be thinking in response to this outright theft of their moniker?? All those thousands and thousands of soldiers out there around the world "defending" "our" "way of life" from the people who "hate freedom" must be good and pissed that a bunch of life savers are taking their label away.

But are the healthcare workers really heroes? Really?  Well, maybe. Doctors Without Borders is one of the greatest organizations known to humankind. Important parts of my life have been inspired by it, clearly (I'll give the slow among you a chance to get your heads around that one). (Hint: scroll up.) But the barrage of heroes-heroes-heroes in the media is gross and unnecessary for the usual reasons: 1. It's being carefully applied, have you noticed?, to United Statesians who trot off from the United States to West Africa to help fight disease before returning to the United States where they should be welcomed by their fellow United Statesians. My goodness, why don't any other nationalities send doctors and nurses to West Africa...oh wait. Right. 2. Like so very, very many things that are uttered, it says more about the speaker than the person being described. Just like the patriotic hearts-a-flutter folks who dutifully thank the military heroes every other month when a national holiday rolls around (they're allowed to take Columbus Day off), these "health care workers are heroes" people say it and then feel satisfied, as if their work here is done, now that they've busted out the h-word. No need for actual thoughtful discourse or critical thought. "I like heroes! See! I'm a good person! Now, get me back to my high-def LCD air-conditioned gas-guzzling meat-eating gluten-free vacuous oblivious life."

By the way, have you heard? If we quarantine these heroes-- or even sometimes if we monitor them, depending on whom you ask -- when they return from West Africa, then this will deter other heroes from going to help. Because, you know. The people who volunteer internationally, the ones who have medical expertise and know-how and are willing and able to travel to the location of a disease outbreak and who spend time on the ground in West Africa..? Yeah, they're going to be okay signing on for all that, but shit, throw in three weeks of monitoring when they get back, in the comfort of their home, while they decompress from the trip? That's it, people! The deal's off!  What the hell? It's almost as if the people talking about what international volunteers think don't have any actual international volunteer experience or something...

I'll just be over here in the corner with people who won't call someone a "hero" if s/he loses his/her shit when faced with the prospect of a 21-day monitoring period and would actually let that alter his/her plans to travel to West Africa to help with this crisis.

But that's just this week's narrative. The previous two weeks it was all about travel bans. Travel bans bad, chanted the forces of smart/rational people (who know all about this because...well, anyway, they're bad). Deny the visas, chanted the forces of psychosis who don't seem to understand how life works, for example, that the consular process of getting a visa doesn't happen overnight, or even overweek or often overmonth, so the people arriving from Liberia today on a visa didn't apply for it this past Monday, okay?

I heard that British Airways suspended its commercial flights in and out of Liberia weeks before the Dallas saga began. Frankly, I found this the tiniest bit reassuring when I boarded a British Airways flight out of Poland a few weeks ago, in the midst of the EU diagnoses, unlike the Dallas-Cleveland Frontier Airlines passengers felt shortly thereafter. But the larger point is about this whole travel-bans-don't-help-they-actually-make-it-worse narrative that you are required to adopt if you want to be one of the cool people. Sure, piecemeal, unenforced, uncoordinated travel bans don't work. But truly enforced ones might, because a disease cannot spread if it isn't spread. Should we all be worried about Ebola spreading uncontrollably? No, in fact, we should not. Because contact tracing and proper protective gear and other accepted Ebola processes will work, if allowed to do their thing. But that's not a reason to pretend you know all about travel bans when you've never in your life considered them before this month.

I assure you, nay, I guarantee you that I am at least as passionately in favor of international travel and freedom of movement as you are. Let me tell you a little story. When I was in Cuba (behold! exhibit A in my see-I-really-mean-it-that-people-should-be-able-to-travel-wherever-they-want case), I was based in Havana but also traveled to other areas during my time there: Trinidad, Cienfuegos, ViƱales, the Isla de la Juventud, Varadero, etc. One place my travel companion and I wanted to visit was Santiago de Cuba, way at the other end of the island (near Guantanamo, for anyone keeping political score at home). Unfortunately, we couldn't travel to Santiago because there was an official quarantine due to an outbreak of I think dengue fever. (Forgive me, as I was still very much sinking-or-swimming in my Spanish and some of the talk about it involving the eye symptoms confused me, but I think it was dengue.) No going in or out. But we really wanted to go to Santiago...and how long does this quarantine last...and as a 22-year-old from the spoiled USA no one tells me what to do...sure, maybe those thoughts passed through my ingenue head, and guess what? Too bad. No Santiago travel. And guess what else? The disease didn't spread across the island. The outbreak was contained. And the sassy muchachitas had to live without Santiago on their itinerary. I'm just saying, maybe what we need here is the heavy hand of communism!

I'll let you all decide for yourselves how serious I am about that last part. I lived in China during a bird flu season, and hey, I appreciated the posters that appeared in my apartment building lobby illustrating hand-washing and how to properly deal with a chicken. Good lookin' out, man. I also had forehead-sensing thermometers pointed at me every time I crossed between the mainland and Hong Kong. I did not react by writing pitiful editorials demanding to know what I had done to deserve this fate. A few years ago, when I traveled to Tajikistan, it just so happened that there had been some cases of polio there. Polio? Who had ever thought about polio in the past decade? Turns out, Afghanistan (which helpfully borders Tajikistan), Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and a handful of other countries, that's who. Also WHO: a World Health Organization worker was deployed at the gate of our flight and we had to either take her offered up polio booster droplets (who knew?!) or waive the vaccine, attesting that we'd been vaccinated. You know what? That was awesome! I like when there are people in charge, and the people in charge are in charge, and not a bunch of jabbering minions who want to make sure they're on all the right sides politically but just end up saying a lot of stupid crap.

No one (that I know) is picking on anyone. No one is disrespecting health care workers. But frankly, all my United Statesian peeps who are so eager to talk about how "We don't have to worry" are just revealing that, as usual, their self-centered worldviews don't include empathy for thousands of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea who would possibly like to "worry" and make sure precautions are taken, and who may well be in favor of following protocols that might inconvenience someone just a teensy bit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Makes sense to me. Dad