A Distinctly American Pandemic

Well, it looks like we are once again in the opening stages of mass hysteria. Less than a week after the first confirmed case of Ebola in the United States, many already seem to be gripped by an Ebola panic that echoes earlier concerns over avian flu, swine flu, MERS, SARS, etc. None of this is new. Mass hysteria is a well-attested and well-studied set of reactions to perceived threats to health and safety. But the panic we’re seeing over Ebola is not like the others.

Americans, allow me to state this categorically: you will not be exposed to Ebola. You will not contract Ebola. You will certainly not die of Ebola. And if you’re convinced you will, I’m honestly surprised you’ve made it this far in life without wandering into traffic or choking on your own saliva. Although Ebola is spreading rapidly and with little sign of containment in the four West African in which it first appeared, its spread outside this zone is minimal. Months after spreading to Lagos, Nigeria, a city of almost 18 million people in a developing country, the disease has affected no more than a handful of people. It seems the high incidences of disease seem to be occurring in areas which are overwhelmed and unprepared to take on an epidemic of this magnitude, and that isolated cases, although equally deadly, can be treated far more effectively. It is not the disease or its spread that sets the Ebola panic apart from other such panics- it is a question of timing.

This panic has risen within a few weeks of the beginning of an international bombing campaign against ISIS. More broadly, the panic coincides with one of the largest and most sustained periods of global instability since the late 1970s, with unprecedented income inequality throughout the Western world, cooling relations between Russia and the NATO states, and with countless other credible threats to health, stability and safety. Within a few days of the first US case of Ebola being uncovered, fear-mongering websites such as this one are already going as far as suggesting a government/CDC cover-up, and suggesting that flights to and from Ebola-stricken countries be curtailed or stopped entirely (which doesn’t seem like it would be particularly helpful in stopping innocent Africans from dying.) Obviously, the timing of the epidemic itself cannot be anything other than a coincidence, but the timing of the ensuing panic in the US seems suspect. I don’t want to imply this whole thing is a dodge, but it certainly doesn’t seem otherwise justified in any way.

Regardless of whether this panic is engineered or an internal reaction that reveals our unwillingness to face our actual problems, fear-mongering, finger-pointing and stoking distrust will not help things. In fact, if we have people suggesting we should shut off West Africa, throw away the key and continue letting people die, we’ve already gone too far.