An eye on elections

Ebola in America

Print edition : November 28, 2014

President Barack Obama meets Nina Pham, a nurse who contracted the disease while caring for a Liberian patient in Texas and recovered completely. Photo: Saul LOEB/AFP

FORT KENT, Maine, sits on the border between Canada and the United States. It is a small town, with a population of not more than 5,000. Little of note takes place here. A flood in 2008 was the last time the media descended on Fort Kent. This time the media came for one of its residents, Kaci Hickox, a nurse who volunteered with Doctors Without Borders (MSF, its French acronym) for its work against Ebola in Sierra Leone. She lives in Fort Kent.

When she returned to the U.S. via New Jersey, its Governor, Chris Christie, attempted to place her in forcible quarantine. She presented no symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. She was nonetheless taken to an isolation wing at the University Hospital in Newark. “I wondered what I had done wrong,” remembers Kaci Hickox. “I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.”

Kaci Hickox refused to submit to the quarantine. She was moved to her home town, where the government tried to isolate her. Again she refused, and the Maine courts agreed with her. Why did Kaci Hickox refuse to submit to the confinement? “I am scared about how health-care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa,” she says. “We need more health-care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa. The U.S. must treat returning health-care workers with dignity and humanity.”

The New England Journal of Medicine, the premier journal of health sciences, agreed with Kaci Hickox. Transmission of Ebola takes place through contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is showing the symptoms of the disease such as fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and malaise. It is at that point that the patient is highly contagious. Fearmongering around Ebola comes easily to politicians, who respond to popular fears out of electoral concerns. Elections in early November across the U.S. are red meat for political populism. The journal recognises that the quarantine policy is driven by the elections. Such an approach, the editors say, “is not scientifically based, is unfair and unwise, and will impede essential efforts to stop these awful outbreaks of Ebola disease at their source, which is the only satisfactory goal”. To stop Ebola in West Africa requires an influx of health-care professionals. “We should be honouring, not quarantining, health-care workers who put their lives at risk not only to save people suffering from Ebola virus disease,” writes the journal’s editor, “but also to help achieve source control, bringing the world closer to stopping the spread of this killer epidemic.” That these West African countries have had their health-care infrastructure killed off by the policies of the International Monetary Fund is another matter.

No case of Ebola had been detected in the U.S. between 1976 (when it was first detected) and October 2014, when Thomas Eric Duncan was taken to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Duncan had been in Liberia, where he contracted the disease. Two nurses who had treated Duncan—Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson—contracted Ebola. After treatment, both have been declared Ebola-free. Nina Pham visited President Barack Obama, who gave her a public hug.

Craig Spencer, a physician who worked with MSF in Guinea to restrain the outbreak, tested positive for Ebola on October 23. He is now stable.

Fear of Ebola outpaces any scientific assessment of the disease. A sharp panic after news of Thomas Eric Duncan’s illness and then death has now subsided slowly. Polls show that the number of people in the U.S. who fear that their family members will contract Ebola has now dropped. A CNN poll suggests that those surveyed felt that the U.S. government is capable of managing the Ebola crisis. “Most Americans seem to recognise that they are not in personal jeopardy themselves,” says CNN’s poll director Keating Holland. Nevertheless, many people worry that Obama did not do enough initially to quell the disease or is not serious about it. Evidence for this is Obama’s refusal to stop travel to and from West Africa.

Chapman University’s annual Survey of American Fears does not have Ebola on its list of five top fears. At its head is “walking alone at night” and “being the victim of a mass shooting”. Fear of walking alone says a great deal about fears of sexual assault and robbery. Fear of gun violence is not idle. A study by the Violence Policy Center from July 2014 found that more people died of gun violence than by car accidents in 14 States — despite the fact that 90 per cent of households have a car, while only a third of households have a gun. Public hazards such as guns and cars do not inflame the public as does the fear of little-known epidemics such as Ebola. Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod made the comparison directly on Twitter: “Ebola fear rampant despite negligible threat to Americans. But thousands fall victim to gun violence each year.”

Vijay Prashad

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