Fear Itself

by Dave Schuler on August 7, 2014

After getting off to a shaky start in her piece on the U. S. reaction to the Ebola outbreak (and bringing sick Americans home for treatment), Heather Wilhelm echoes a point I’ve made:

No matter your feelings on crazed grocery runs, a definite strangeness surrounds America’s leading Ebola narrative. There is, for instance, a whole lot of condescension going on. On Monday, online magazine Slate ran a “myth-busting” piece on Ebola, explaining why you’re pretty much a moron to worry even a little bit about a contagious virus that can melt your insides. The article included an alarming-looking photo, featuring three individuals in hazmat suits, with the following caption: “Members of Doctors Without Borders wear protective gear on July 23, 2014, in Conakry, Guinea, in a scene that’s not coming to the U.S. anytime soon.”

Ah, the smugness. Can you feel it? America is rich, you see. Africa, meanwhile, is The Other. This sentiment, explicit or not, is echoed repeatedly in much of the “don’t panic” press. Slate’s caption, when you think about it, isn’t too far from a recent headline from the satirical news site The Onion: “Experts: Ebola Vaccine at Least 50 White People Away.”

It’s a relief that I’m not the only one who sees it.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

TastyBits August 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

The problem is that they think all the accident scenarios have been contemplated and precautions have been taken. An accident is something unplanned, and therefore, there can be no precautions taken.

I run into this all the time. When you have multiple layers of redundancy, it makes accidents less likely, but they are still possible. Human factors are difficult to eliminate.

CStanley August 7, 2014 at 10:12 am

I get your point but I think it’s a bit misplaced. There really are cultural differences, and the literature supports the idea that these are factors in the transmission in Africa in a way that would not be so problematic here. The problems with funeral practices in Africa has been well documented, because family members wash the corpses and the viral load is extremely high for days after death. We would be very unlikely to have that particular problem here.

I think what is being missed though, is that we may well have cultural factors of our own that could increase transmission rates. For instance, one reason being cited for the higher rate of infection in this outbreak compared to previous ones is that it has hit in urban areas this time. That doesn’t bode well for some infected person getting off of an airplane at JFK in NYC. Also, even though hygiene generally is better here, I can imagine public restrooms in heavily trafficked areas being a hotspot.

I really wish though that our public health officials would get out in front of panic by explaining the difference in pandemic risk between an airborne pathogen and one that transfers only through fluids. It is night and day, in terms of what the potential rate of infection could be.

... August 7, 2014 at 10:46 am

When you have multiple layers of redundancy, it makes accidents less likely, but they are still possible.

Airplane disasters are usually the result of a cascade of errors. It’s rarely one thing, even when it initially appears to be just one thing.

steve August 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Writer is a good example of punditry at its worst. Doesn’t understand the topic at all, but can write snark about it. It would stake some real effort and knowledge to write a serious piece. Much easier to just snark away. Doesn’t know what an epidemiologist is (not alone on that alas), no one ever said it couldn’t happen here because we are rich, etc.

Query for Ms Wilhelm- What is your plan for when someone(s) come back from an endemic area carrying the disease and no one knew about it? Oh, I know. The free market will respond and take care of it.

Steve

steve August 7, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Couple of other things. We had not had an outbreak of this size before since the places where it occurred knew how to handle it. I think it also helps to remember the early AIDS epidemic. We used to do full spacesuits just to talk with those patients. They were predicting that every trauma surgeon in the country would have AIDS.

Steve

Andy August 8, 2014 at 2:25 am

Well, since the primary transmission vector for Ebola is via bodily fluids, the threat to the US and developed nations is small. The CDC and WHO seem to agree on that point.

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