Remember the great North American Ebola hysteria of '14? The baseless quarantines, the helicopters following the first infected American aid worker as he was taken off a plane in the United States, the television news channels that warned, in a continuous panicky crawl, that "cases may soar to 10,000 per week."
The terror was justified – if you happened to live in certain parts of West Africa. As of last week, the death toll in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone had reached 9,637 out of 23,781 confirmed cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Thankfully, it looks like the spread of the disease is finally slowing in those countries.
One person who was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died, out of four confirmed cases. You would never know that, judging by the paranoia and political grandstanding that dominated the airwaves in October. A community college in Texas stopped taking applicants from affected countries; two kids from Sierra Leone were beaten up in America because, you know, they'd been to Sierra Leone. Health-care professionals returning from Africa were placed under quarantine even if they showed no symptoms; anyone they'd come in contact with was told to stay at home too, as if the virus could spread by mere proximity (which was not the case). It was like Beatlemania, if you took away the Beatles and just kept the mania.
There has never been a case of Ebola in Canada, but that didn't prevent our government's shameful decision to deny visas to visitors from the afflicted countries, over the protests of public-health experts. Australia did the same thing.
The most absurd cautionary tale had to involve the closing of Coming Attractions, a bridal shop in Akron, Ohio, which shut down in January after months of poor sales. The reason? Amber Vinson, a nurse who contracted (and recovered from) Ebola had visited the store before her diagnosis. "You can't Google 'Coming Attractions' without the word 'Ebola' coming up everywhere," one of the shop's employees told a local newscast. I feel for the owners of the shop, though not as deeply as I feel for the people suffering and fighting the disease in West Africa.
Some of the damage the hysteria left in its wake was laid out in a report this week called Ethics and Ebola, from the U.S. Presidential Commission on Bioethical Issues. "In the United States," the authors noted, "the limited cases sometimes generated widespread fear, unflattering reactions and governmental responses that some argued were actually focused on addressing political implications of such public reactions as opposed to the underlying health concerns themselves."
This will not surprise anyone who heard politicians such as Rand Paul, as well as walking caricature Donald Trump, essentially blame President Barack Obama for the arrival of the virus on America's shores. A Fox News host actually asked the director of the CDC, live on air, why anyone should trust its advice when it was "part of the administration."
Public trust is key, as the report points out. Preparations have to be made not just for the next epidemic but for the best way to communicate useful information to the public that is based on science, not fear or political machinations. The report singles out travel bans and unnecessary quarantines of health professionals that were "ineffective and overly restrictive." Instead, it recommends a policy of "least infringement," which acknowledges that allowing experts to travel to fight an epidemic at its source is the best way of stopping a disease's global spread.
Try telling that to Kaci Hickox. She's the nurse who was slapped into quarantine after returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, despite not having the virus or even any symptoms of it. She fought the quarantine in court and threatened to sue New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. ("Get in line," he responded.)
"My liberty, my interests and consequently my civil rights were ignored because some ambitious governors saw an opportunity to use an age-old political tactic: fear," she wrote in the Guardian. The issue, which she wrote about under the headline Stop Calling Me 'The Ebola Nurse,' was much larger than just her restricted movements. "Too many political and civic leaders have allowed this fear to spread and some even fuelled the flames."
Her comments were echoed by Craig Spencer, the New York doctor who contracted Ebola and had his own moment in the panic spotlight. Dr. Spencer went to a bowling alley before he began showing symptoms, prompting widespread terror and leading one wit to point out that New Yorkers were safe unless Dr. Spencer had had carnal relations with a bowling ball.
Dr. Spencer recently wrote about his experiences in The New England Journal of Medicine, and in an interview with WNYC radio he lambasted the fear-mongering that leads to mandatory quarantine policies: "I'm afraid that what happened was that we forsake public health principles at the expense of political expediency. … I'm very afraid that what we did in this situation is set a precedent that allowed politicians to make public health policies when they were not qualified to do so."
They have such nice, reasonable tones, Dr. Spencer and Ms. Hickox. What are the chances they'll be heard above the shouting?