He was all over the news, roughly a month or so ago: Kent Brantly, the doctor who contracted Ebola in Africa.
But since he’s been discharged from Emory University Hospital weeks ago—when we saw him hugging hospital staffers and reuniting with his family, telling all he was no longer infectious—we haven’t heard much about him since.
Which reminds me of an important point: the most contagious thing in America is hysteria.
As the doctor goes on with his life, think of those who would rather have left him in Africa.
I harken to my “Die Hard” theory: the movie, like life, contains three types of people. The hero, those who help him, and the fellow who nearly ruins it for everyone by panicking.
It’s the same in most disaster films: at some point the hero has to slap some blithering mess across the face because he won’t stop screaming, “we’re all gonna die!” A person who relies on emotion, not fact—when faced with a serious, potentially lethal issue—can only become THAT person. You don’t want to be that person.
The great thing about being in the commentary racket is you can be that person for a day or two, then move onto something else. The cycle of news, now turbocharged, makes panic and outrage the necessary lubrication for shallow thinking.
You can rile up decent people with an unnerving headline; then when the story fades, no one remembers your role in the rage. I rely on Drudge for great stories, but sometimes after reading that front page, I want to build a panic room inside another panic room.
It’s not just Matt. The front pages of NY tabloids screamed “EBOLA” months ago, basing their accounts on the testing of a single person in New York. When the testing turned up negative, you’d need a magnifying glass to find that follow up coverage.
Fear sells more than fact. As one top doctor told me, all hospitals are obliged to test an incoming patient, to eliminate wrong diagnosis. They’d be idiots not to do that. So testing someone for something is no story, since so many symptoms are similar, and you are more likely to die from something that ISN’T Ebola. (Look at the stats on diarrhea: each year it kills 760,000 children under five. Scary, but not nearly as headline-grabbing as Ebola). Newscasters love saying Ebola is exploding, and then they lower their panic when explaining that, yes, it’s not a threat to us (yet).
Testing a patient is a story. Testing negative is not.
While it’s dead correct to worry about a disease that’s killing scores of people in Africa, does piling on the panic help or hurt the present situation? As Dr. Marc Siegel points out, this is serious serious stuff in Africa and needs to be addressed fast to help prevent it from spreading. But adding a layer of panic about how it might spread here is not just unnecessary, it’s dangerous. Action, performed deliberately and cautiously by calm people, beats just about every rash alternative.
Right now, it’s panic and ignorance that’s helping Ebola spread. The doc gave me an example of what happens when you panic; you tend not to make sound hygienic decisions. A person in hysterics is less likely to wash their hands.
He’s right. I am a panicky, anxious person, and the decisions I make in that “state” are never good. Ask my wife. My impatience, which creates anxiety, has nearly led to catastrophe more times than I care to admit. I could elaborate, but…
…back to Ebola: I noticed a number of writers using the “How can we trust this government on anything” approach when dealing with the stream of info coming from the CDC. This reaction is understandable after so many years of presidential prestidigitation. But one must not let your political stance, or your feelings toward Obama, prevent you from fact absorption.
Most people who sounded the alarms over Ebola did so, even when the facts told them not to. To understand why this particular outbreak is more devastating than before, facts help. Here’s a few:
Ebola has been around for decades. The outbreaks were in rural areas and therefore more easily isolated and contained. That’s why they were smaller than the present outbreak.
In more crowded villages, it’s more easily spread and harder to convince people that certain, very specific medical practices must be implemented and enforced. Obstacles to action include superstition. Many people even think doctors spread the disease.
That’s why you see chaos in central Africa.
Terrible, unhealthy practices spread the disease: primarily the washing of corpses, which puts people into contact with the contagious secretions. The disease is spread through bodily secretions. So no, it’s not like a deadly super-flu.
It’s hygienically driven. The heroic American doctor and nurse contracted the disease because sanitary measures were not up to par. They are now in America, where we are masters at containment. Dr. Brantley is alive now, because of us.
A brilliant doctor I really respect, Dr. Ben Carson, said he wouldn’t have allowed the infected Americans back into the country. He said someone could bribe a health worker for infected secretions (a million dollars in exchange for a vial of bio-terror). It’s a terrifying thought—but one that could be applied to any hazardous agent. So what must we do: get rid of all risks, because those employed in managing them might be bought off by nefarious terrorists? We’d have absolutely no police force, no fire department, no nuclear arsenal whatsoever. Anything that can inflict harm has potential to fall into the hands of evil rich madmen. We’d never be able to make a vaccine.
This kind of scary story will happen again. It always does. So you need to ask yourself how you will respond when it does.
Will you do some reading, spend some thoughtful time digesting the information, and shape an informed opinion? Or will you look around, seek the loudest voice, and repeat it, only louder? Because, for that week, it makes you the pied piper of panic?
If you choose the latter, then you’re that guy in the disaster movie. The frantic fear-monger. And once you realize the sky didn’t fall again, you’ll simply move on to another fear.
And meanwhile, another 2 or 3 thousand kids will die of something not trending on Twitter.