America can still redeem itself over Ebola

No panic.
No panic.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Innerarity
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Just when we thought the international response to Ebola was gathering strength and nations around the world were taking the epidemic seriously, developing sound policies to combat it, two countries have decided to succumb to fear and have issued travel and visa bans on residents and citizens of the three nations hardest hit—Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. These policies have been criticized by the World Health Organization and are in violation of international law, but Australia and Canada have gone forward with them anyway.

As Americans, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the response to the epidemic by our federal government has been wise, measured and evidence-based and we can be proud that we’re the largest donor in terms of pledges made to the relief effort to date.

However, it is hard to focus on the generosity of our government and so many Americans—some of whom have traveled to West Africa to combat the Ebola epidemic, others who are finding ways to contribute financially or otherwise from home—when television, the newspapers and the internet are filled with the worst of what this country has to offer.

A child was told to stay away from school in Connecticut, because she had traveled to Nigeria, a country that beat Ebola weeks ago. In the same state, eight people were quarantined although none had any high-risk exposure to the virus. Nurses and other healthcare workers at Bellevue Hospital in New York City are being shunned—or worse—in their communities for simply working in a hospital where an Ebola patient now fights for his life. A teacher in Oklahoma will self-quarantine in November because of an upcoming trip to Rwanda. And then there are the politicians who have become epidemiologists and medical doctors overnight, opining about disease risk and public health, doing so in almost complete opposition to the real scientific and clinical facts.

This wave of American paranoia, panic, xenophobia, cruelty, and political opportunism is stunning. When juxtaposed against the death toll in West Africa, it becomes unseemly, almost grotesque. After all, there has been one death from Ebola in the US and no onward infections to the general public. I don’t think most Americans realize the picture this paints for the rest of the world.

Three countries in West Africa are being decimated by an epidemic that was entirely preventable and could have been contained—and still can be. It’s OK to be afraid of a dreaded disease, but under the circumstances—in which most of us can truly say that no one we know will die from Ebola—we must be able to pull back, look at ourselves, devote our efforts to stopping the epidemic where it originated.

Is this all we are made of as a nation, that we’re left to descend into a pool of panic and fear and wallow in it?

There is still a need for basic supplies, beds, and support for community health workers to educate people about the disease and safe burials—all of these resources need to get where they are needed as fast as we can do it. At a press conference in Ghana this week, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power called upon governments to deliver on their pledges of financial support. Making sure the generous aid the US promised gets out quickly would be a better use of our time than fretting about the “great Ebola outbreak that wasn’t” in the US.

While recent figures point to a possible slow-down in the epidemic in Liberia, this is no time to let down our guard. All of the affected countries have desperate shortages of healthcare workers, and more volunteers are needed. What do we do with the growing number of states that are seeking to quarantine returning doctors, nurses and other health care professionals? We speak up. If our governors want to make the Ebola epidemic a political football, we can kick it back and demand they take real steps to combat the epidemic by halting unnecessary quarantines and making a call for more health workers to volunteer for the fight.

In addition, upon their return, instead of offering these brave women and men three weeks of involuntary confinement—whether they show symptoms of the disease or not—why not create ways to honor their service? Communities can show support for health workers by helping their loved ones while they are away, and when these workers get back, perhaps can show some measure of gratitude: think of the flowers and tokens of appreciation outside of the firehouses after 9/11 in New York City; we are capable of these small acts of kindness for those who act selflessly in times of crisis.

We can do better than succumb to the kind of hysteria now sweeping our country. We can show the world that we can master our fears, show compassion for others, and step into the breach to help when it is needed. This is America’s place in the world—not cowering over distant and remote threats, lashing out at those who try to help, vilifying little girls who travel to Africa and who just want to go to school. We are better than that.