In some pockets of America, people are freaking out about getting Ebola. Parents in Mississippi kept their children home from middle school because the principal recently traveled to Africa. A Texas college has turned away students from Ebola-infected countries. Some conservative commentators want to close down the borders and ban flights to and from West Africa.
Never mind that there are six diseases killing tens of thousands in America each year that are far more dangerous to the average American. The flu alone killed 53,000 people in the U.S. in 2010. Also make sure and forget that Ebola is not some new disease. We have known about it for decades.
Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has “slowed down” research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.
“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'” Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.” I do not blame just the Republicans for these cuts. Both parties need to take blame and responsibility for not making the NIH, CDC and other important health agencies a priority and increase their budgets. Build one less $13 billion Aircraft carrier and that would fund the CDC for two entire years. I am not against a strong military or a new aircraft carrier, but $13 BILLION! That is insane. I can’t imagine how much pork and cronyism was included in that price. Surely we can build the exact same aircraft carrier for many billions less with some oversight.
If we had a Surgeon General at the time of the crisis that would have also helped with a central administrator in place to help coordinate policy. The Republicans along with some cowardly Democrats were too scared to confirm the current nominee because of a tweet he made about gun deaths than angered the NRA. So when Republicans were whining about the lack of an Ebola czar weeks ago they need to look in the mirror. What the NRA wants it gets in Congress and if you want to be the Surgeon General you better be careful not to tweet something obvious about guns being a health hazard.
With only four known cases of Ebola appearing in the U.S., the chances of contracting the disease are close to nil, but that doesn’t prevent a fantasy from taking shape, one in which something terrifying arises from deepest, darkest Africa, threatening to take over our bodies. The fantasy summons our prejudices and clouds our thinking.
Air pollution is far more likely to injure and kill us, but that idea doesn’t carry the narrative punch of an Ebola fantasy. The threat of airborne toxins feels too pervasive and we feel too vulnerable and exposed. The damage is gradual and often invisible, rather than immediate and dramatic. It doesn’t allow us to conjure an outsider, a scary other on whom we can project our anxieties. The individual survivalist can do little to reduce the threat of air pollution to his own body except perhaps move to another town. But purchasing rubber gloves and shopping at less crowded times of the day as protection from Ebola can convey a feeling of safety and control — even against a virtually non-existent threat.
Irrational fears have always been with us, of course. For 200 years, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes because they believed that wealthy people got sick and died after eating them. In reality, the pewter plates used by aristocrats were giving them lead poisoning, heightened by the tomato’s acidity. But the tomato itself became the culprit, and the fear denied people a perfectly healthy food option. Fears that tomatoes were poisonous lingered long after science had discovered the dangers of lead. Similarly today, it doesn’t matter how many times the notion that Canola oil (made from the rape plant, a member of the mustard family) is poisonous is debunked, the myth that it will hurt you persists on the Internet and removes a perfectly healthy oil from many American diets.
Ebola’s pre-eminence in the news media probably has much to do with the primal fear it inspires and the popular-culture context from which it comes. While Ebola isn’t widespread or common, those who get it are at grave risk; the mortality rate is upward of 70 percent (the far-less covered Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, clocks in with a death rate of about 40 percent). Salon.com columnist Andrew O’Hehir likens Ebola to a great white shark: Your chances of encountering one are abysmally low, but so are your chances of surviving such a meeting.
Much of the hype is due to the media coverage. Take a look at how the Brits are covering Ebola versus us yanks on this side of the pond.