When I think of government in abstract terms, I think of one of two things: an organization dedicated to keeping the people down or an organization dedicated to keeping the people safe. When I think of the United States government, I generally think of the latter. But lately, our government has been continually messing up in one way or another, with the latest screwup being the government’s handling of the latest Ebola outbreak. So far, there have been over 13,000 reported cases worldwide, and by the looks of it, these numbers are only going to rise. According to the World Health Organization’s Oct. 14 report, there could be up to 10,000 new Ebola cases per week by December.
How has our government responded? By sending around three thousand troops to infected areas in Africa and by transferring all travelers coming to the United States from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to five airports in the nation, all equipped with advanced screening methods. The states of New York and New Jersey have necessitated quarantines for medical workers arriving home from West Africa, and Illinois has instituted a quarantine for high-risk travelers as well. Despite these measures, and given the absolutely horrifying reality of the disease itself and its ease of transmission, you would think that more would be done to keep the disease from reaching our shores.
Four people have been infected with Ebola in the United States, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not all that many—but that’s beside the point. The point is that there have been four cases in the United States of one of the most dangerous viruses in the world (stored in only the most secure Center for Disease Control in the country, at biosafety level 4). It takes just one person to instigate an outbreak, and Ebola has the ability to spread far and wide across the country. Sure, one can argue that with our superior health care and infrastructure, an outbreak of Ebola would be short-lived and tame, but do we really want to bother with that scenario when we can avoid it entirely? And what about our troops in the infected areas? Could they themselves not become a liability if Ebola were to spread through their ranks?
The simplest yet most controversial option for keeping Ebola at bay is to simply close our doors to the nations with uncontrollable outbreaks. Is it really fear mongering to take a proactive step toward the safety of the nation? Even if everyone were carefully and meticulously monitored at the five airports mentioned above, what guarantee is there that those in charge won’t make a mistake and confuse Ebola symptoms with the flu, or overlook it altogether? Although it is unlikely that the doctors at these airports—–—who question incoming travelers about possible exposure to Ebola, take their temperatures, and inquire about symptoms—will make a grave mistake, the system in place is certainly not foolproof. According to the Center for Disease Control, symptoms typically first appear 8 to 10 days after the sufferer has contracted the disease; in some cases, there are no symptoms for 21 days. The entire situation is all one big house of cards. All it takes is one misstep for the entire situation to go to hell.
Instead of making any hard, effective decisions, President Obama has put his Ebola response coordinator, or his “Ebola czar,” in charge. No, this man is not an epidemiologist or an expert on infectious disease, but a career politician named Ron Klain. Let me use an analogy to explain why it’s a stupid decision to put this guy in charge: If you had a ship, would you prefer a captain who actually knows about boats to lead the ship, or would you rather have a lawyer? I am not doubting Klain’s skills in leadership or management. I am doubting his scientific knowledge about Ebola, which I would argue is the most important set of skills required to respond to the disease.
But President Obama is not the only one trivializing Ebola. In light of all the grief and horror that this virus has caused, it is quite shocking when we see it become a joke in our nation. Some on our campus humorously throw the word “Ebola” around at any sign of illness, and Ebola Halloween costumes, protective suits modeled off the ones used by medical professionals who risk their lives to treat the diseased, were on sale for the holiday a few weeks ago. We use satire and parody to trivialize something that has and is causing severe social, economic, and political damage for decades to come in nations that are already struggling unimaginably.
I’m all for a good joke, even of the occasional offensive variety, but I do believe that we have to draw the line at some point: more specifically, at Ebola, especially when the problem is happening as we speak. We’re hurting ourselves; when we do not take the disease seriously, our sense of fear of it dissipates somewhat. That is not entirely a bad thing, but one cannot doubt the fact that with fear comes a sense of caution. Without caution, we have apathy, and when were are apathetic, we wonder, why care about Ebola? And what do problems of the developing world have to do with us?
At the end of the day, we, the United States, are messing up. From our viewpoint, Ebola is simply another force of nature, a natural disaster, so far removed from us that it really is not a big deal. (As some say, as soon as the so-called right people start getting Ebola, a cure will pop up in no time.) Nevertheless, in the case of something as grave and devastating as Ebola, it’s what could happen, rather than what is most likely to happen, that we need to worry about.
Ghosh is a member of the class of 2018.