Disease History Vs. Disease Hysteria
America has a long history of confronting and beating back pandemics, so let’s maybe not lose our heads over Ebola?
I used to joke that Congress had an approval rating somewhere between bedbugs and the Ebola virus. And although Congress’s current unpopularity is nothing to sneeze at—pass the Purell, please—I may have to move my goalposts: Ebola is now Public Enemy #1.
So we’re now experiencing what many have said is like the first chapter of a Michael Crichton novel or a throwback horror movie: a world away, a silent killer…a government unaware…they never saw it coming…and they had nowhere to go…
And to be sure, now that a few cases have hopped a direct flight to our local newscasts, and now that the government has bobbled its response, people in America have stepped up and nailed their part: they’ve freaked the hell out. I might suggest a title: “Andromeda Strain 2: The Predictable Hysteria.” Or perhaps “Dude, Where’s My Czar?” Ron Klain to the rescue!
But front and center in the analogies to cinematic thrillers is a more helpful point: the sense that we’ve seen this before. We have. FADE IN:
Six years after the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution promoting the “general welfare” of an entire nation, one out of ten residents of that very city, the then-capital of the United States, were far from well: they died of something they too couldn’t see coming. Yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia in first few weeks of October 1793. Even George Washington, the President of the newly united United States, fled the capital city.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps the nation’s most celebrated doctor at the time—he’d be the Yellow Fever czar if helpful czars were in fashion then—noted that “a meteor” had been seen “at two o’clock in the morning,” and that “moschetoes” were “uncommonly numerous.” He and the rest of Philadelphia also pointed the finger at “miasma”—bad air—thanks to a shipment of rotting coffee that had been dumped at the docks.
His treatment? What came to be known as “heroic medicine,” if not particularly helpful medicine: Administering large quantities of mercury and extreme bleeding. Ultimately, one out of every ten Philadelphians died of the “black vomit”—over five thousand.
So far, from Dallas to Dulles, one out of every 110 million Americans have contracted Ebola here in the states. Of those, none have died.
And no, we haven’t been “crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s,” as the president had hoped a few days ago. Frankly, our response has been not only alarming, it’s been embarrassing. Insufficient protocols or incompetent practices for and by the nurses in the hospital hot zone. A CDC that seems perplexed by the ABCs of containing a highly predictable outbreak. An NBC medical correspondent—herself a physician who would quickly reprimand the masses for their malpractice—who, damn it all, wanted soup. So it’s not only been alarming and embarrassing, it’s been a horror movie where everyone is the fool who wanders off alone.
And we’re left to yell at the screen: don’t go out there! Don’t report like that!
Oh sure, they made mistakes back in 1793 too. Beyond blaming meteors and rotting coffee, Dr. Rush deemed that “something…singular in the constitution of the negroes” rendered them impervious to the disease—a fact revealed to be a deadly fiction when so many selfless black patriots volunteered to help care for the sick and subsequently died at the same rate as whites. Medical authorities of the day often acted less out of an “abundance of caution” than with a general callousness to humanity.
Despite the errors, despite the ignorance, Philadelphia recovered. Their outbreak was more serious, and their response more sound. Even though the Founders at first blamed meteors, they eventually made “moschetoes” as the yellow-bellied culprit. The union held. Today, there are no travel bans levied against the 8:15am Acela bound for Philly.
So perhaps a little history might help hamper our hysteria. This movie we’re living doesn’t have to be an apocalyptical thriller. It’s just a reboot. We have seen this before. With 221 years of preparation, we should know how to respond. And how to react.