I remember, as a child, watching Ben-Hur and wondering why being sent to a “leper colony” was such a bad thing. To me, lepers were regal animals with beautiful coats and according to my Time-Life Nature book, not particularly vicious unless provoked. It seemed that Mrs. Ben-Hur and her daughter were exaggerating about the inconvenience.
Seven-year-olds do not, obviously, have a firm grasp of either infectious diseases or homonyms. It was only years later that I realized “lepers” were the tubercular patients of the 1800s who became the HIV sufferers of the late 1900s who became the Ebola victims of the year 2014. Epidemics bring out the worst, and the best, in all of us. Philadelphians remember that during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, one of the wealthiest city fathers stayed to minister to the sick even though he could have fled to safer quarters. That’s why the name Stephen Girard is still revered two centuries later.
But history is also replete with cases of the afflicted being shunned out of fear that they would infect the populace, and we only have to go as far back as 35 years ago to the dawn of the AIDS crisis for an uncomfortable reminder of what happens when ignorance replaces common sense. Does Ryan White ring a bell?
This is not one of those ACLU-approved jeremiads against Chris Christie, quarantines and the GOP. Any suggestion that conservatives are responsible for the inability to confront the Ebola crisis, as Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health implied when he bemoaned the decrease in research funding over the last 10 or so years, is as despicable as it is juvenile.
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But I do have a bone to pick with those who believe we are, in fact, an island in this beautiful country and that we can isolate ourselves by whatever means necessary from the rest of the world with hyperbole, bad science and flawed public health policies.
To me, quarantining those who have come into direct contact with the Ebola virus either because they have been living in regions where the disease is uncontrolled or because they have dealt intimately with afflicted patients makes common sense. We need to vet them before they enter the country for the first time (ball’s in your court, Department of Homeland Security) or, if they’re U.S. citizens, upon their return from abroad.
And guess what? Keeping people in an isolation tent in a hospital setting during the three week incubation period even if they are asymptomatic does not violate the Geneva Conventions, even though I noted in a Facebook post that port-a-potties and freeze-dried food are a bit much. If we are going to keep people detained, particularly if they’re health professionals volunteering their time, we should be able to treat them relatively well.
My original sympathies were with the nurse who, upon return from abroad, was quarantined in Newark, N.J. That is, until she started complaining about her stay at the Hoboken Hilton and made the ridiculous assertion that quarantines weren’t necessary. She might not be suffering from Ebola, but she is suffering from delusions.
But liberals are not alone in exploiting the threat to our health and welfare. I recently hosted a radio program where one of the callers — let’s call him “Matt,” because the other names I can think of are not very nice — blamed the “illegal immigrant kids pouring over the border” for infecting our sweet U.S. citizen youngsters with that enterovirus. It reminded me of the time when Lou Dobbs started foaming at the mouth about the Latinos who were, by their mere presence in the United States, increasing the rate of leprosy.
Now I don’t know about you, but outside of Cecil B. DeMille extravaganzas, lepers are relatively low on the totem pole of social ills. A smart man like Lou Dobbs knows that. Unfortunately, smart men and women are often willing to exploit a crisis for their own benefit. It’s called playing politics.
It happens on the other side as well, of course. Being HIV positive used to make you inadmissible to the United States. However, that ground of inadmissibility was removed years ago, and I suspect it’s because the LGBT community is well-connected politically. Lepers, apparently, aren’t.
I don’t want to be too glib, here. It’s just that I hate seeing politics interject itself into what is essentially a scientific matter. Trying to link a disease to someone’s immigration status is not a good thing, and I’ve noticed that some of my West African clients have begun to feel very unwelcome in this country because they happen to come from a part of the world where Ebola runs rampant.
Francis Collins was wrong to blame conservatives. Lou Dobbs was wrong to blame Latinos. “Matt” was wrong to blame little brown kids. That annoyed and annoying Ebola nurse was wrong for blaming Chris Christie.
Seriously, it’s enough to make you sick.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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