There are those who are saying that the reaction to the spread of Ebola – the overreaction, actually – is a bunch of fear-mongered hype. To one degree, there’s some truth to that. A pretty wide-spread lack of knowledge about the specifics of the disease has led people to believe that it’s far more contagious than it really is. And, yes, the actual rate of infection is pretty low when you compare it to other diseases. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge something pretty basic that a number of people who are dismissive of the grave concern being shown by the public seem to discount. There’s more to the fear of Ebola than the rate of infection. It’s the consequences that come with infection that raise the level of concern, here. The fact of the matter is that it’s also extremely, extremely rare for a child to be abducted. As the years have passed and our awareness of even small, local events has increased due to the rise of the always-connected society, most of us have become acquainted, through the news, with some family, somewhere, who has suffered this trauma and had it displayed directly before us. We imagine ourselves in that situation and find it to be so terrible that we become determined to take actions to reduce that risk to as close to zero as is humanly possible. It’s not a matter of the statistical risk of having one’s child abducted that drives us. It’s the gravity of the consequences that will accrue should it occur.
So it is with Ebola.
Faced with an outbreak in West Africa that has gone on far longer than most and, then, with a case of a man who got around the measures designed to keep someone from bringing the disease here to the US, the Obama Administration did… nothing at all to bolster any defenses. The concept of quarantine isn’t new. The idea of simply not allowing people from areas where plaque has flared up to travel into areas where it has not is something the Romans did millennia ago. Obama could have availed himself of procedures set forth by his predecessor in office and implemented stronger travel quarantine measures, if he hadn’t quietly revoked them back in 2010. Not that anyone in the current administration would ever admit that. In fact, Obama’s CDC chief, Tom Frieden, says that such measures would make the outbreak worse:
The first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has caused some to call on the United States to ban travel for anyone from the countries in West Africa facing the worst of the Ebola epidemic.
That response is understandable. It’s only human to want to protect ourselves and our families. We want to defend ourselves, so isn’t the fastest, easiest solution to put up a wall around the problem?
But, as has been said, for every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s quick, simple, and wrong.
A travel ban is not the right answer. It’s simply not feasible to build a wall – virtual or real – around a community, city, or country. A travel ban would essentially quarantine the more than 22 million people that make up the combined populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Interesting notion, that it’s not “feasible” to “build a wall” around populations that are showing an outbreak of a disease or that quarantine is, somehow, ineffective. Studies performed by the CDC, thank you, have concluded that this very technique was what made the difference during the Spanish
Fly1 Flu Epidemic between a community recovering versus several thousand body bags. The part about CDC Chief Frieden’s opinion piece that leapt off the page to me, however, was this:
When a wildfire breaks out we don’t fence it off. We go in to extinguish it before one of the random sparks sets off another outbreak somewhere else.
Actually, we do both, and the creation of firebreaks is considered key to keeping the wildfire from spreading out of control. In other words, we take measures explicitly to limit the travel of the flames.
Mr. Frieden’s commentary and approach seem, to me, to be more about defending the actions (or, rather, inaction) of the President than about advancing all possible measures to defending this nation’s citizens from the spread of a disease that, while thankfully rare, is devastating to those afflicted and difficult to treat. I appreciate his suggestion that we need to get over there and meet that threat – I wholeheartedly concur – but we don’t need airlines to be carrying ordinary passenger traffic back and forth to get the assets over there that we need.