Only two months ago, many Americans were gripped by fear of the uncontrollable spread of an apparently incurable disease that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected could strike 1.4 million people in West Africa before it came under control.
Amid such reports, it took only one case to touch off near-panic inside the United States: that of Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan after he was misdiagnosed by a Dallas hospital.
In the weeks that followed Duncan’s death, state and local governments reacted — and sometimes overreacted. Several schools barred teachers and children who had visited African countries that were nowhere near the epidemic. In Maine, a teacher was put on leave because she had visited Dallas.
And then election-year politics kicked in.
Members of Congress, mostly Republicans, warned that Ebola could be carried into the country by illegal immigrants or even terrorists, and demanded a ban on travelers entering the United States from the affected countries. Governors scrambled to draft quarantine regulations, producing a showdown between Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and a nurse he tried to confine to a tent. (The nurse won.)
And now? The crisis is all but forgotten. We’ve moved on.
The epidemic is ebbing in Liberia, but still spreading in Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization estimates there have been about 18,000 cases, including more than 6,300 deaths: tragic numbers, but far below the apocalyptic scenario once predicted.
Only four cases of the disease have been diagnosed in the United States, two of them in people who contracted the disease in West Africa. And we’ve learned that when Ebola is identified early, in a country with a functioning healthcare system, the disease is treatable after all.
“What’s the one word you haven’t heard a politician say since Election Day?” Democratic strategist James Carville asked me a few weeks ago. “Ebola!”
I’m not blaming ordinary people for reacting as they did to a deadly epidemic they’d been told was difficult to stop.
I’m not even blaming governors who scrambled to impose quarantines to stop the spread of a disease they didn’t know much about. Their job was to protect their citizens. And when they discovered that their initial reactions might have been too broad, they pared them back — even Chris Christie.
It’s worth remembering, as well, that the Obama administration initially did a ham-handed job of mastering the crisis. Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC started out by assuring the country that the situation was under control — even though it wasn’t, at first.
But there is one list of politicians who still deserve a measure of scorn: the ones who fanned fear for fear’s sake.
This week, those politicians shared in an award they probably didn’t want: the annual “Lie of the Year” prize conferred by PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times. They won, the paper said, because they deliberately “produced a dangerous and incorrect narrative” about an important global problem.
Before you dismiss that as another liberal media attack on the GOP, consider this: Last year’s PolitiFact winner for “Lie of the Year” was President Obama, for his promise that under his 2010 healthcare law, “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”
The politicians mentioned in this year’s citation included Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an ophthalmologist who may run for president.
His advice on Ebola included this warning: “This is an incredibly contagious disease. People in full gloves and gowns are getting it.”
Well, no, as thousands of medical workers in Africa can testify — not when true precautions are in place.
“This is something that appears to be very easy to catch,” Paul added. “If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party, they’re contagious and you can catch it from them.”
Theoretically true — but only if your cocktail party acquaintance is emitting fluids in your direction; Ebola can’t be transmitted by air.
Then there was Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., another physician, who managed to combine two hot-button issues, Ebola and immigration. Gingrey announced that he had received “reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever and Ebola.”
Other members of Congress speculated that terrorists might infect themselves, sneak into the United States and try to spread the disease in crowded places. PolitiFact carefully said it couldn’t count that as a lie, since it was mere speculation.
But it was surely intended to increase fear. And fear is a powerful emotion, much easier to provoke than to ease.
So now that the acute fear of Ebola has ebbed, we should pause for a moment to thank some Americans who didn’t panic — and, more important, even did something to bring the epidemic closer to an end: the courageous relief workers who went to Africa, not knowing whether they’d be allowed to return home, relief workers that included roughly 3,000 U.S. military personnel who accepted deployment to Liberia as part of their jobs, and whose clinic-building mission will be complete soon. And yes, even those politicians, beginning with President Obama, who didn’t panic.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.
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