Though the Ebola outbreak officially started in December 2013 in Meliandou, Guinea, fear and concern in the “not-Africa” part of the world were at barely detectable levels throughout most of 2014. Here in my neck of the woods, everyone knew what Ebola was–but it stayed in Africa and killed only Africans and people who chose to go to Africa, so no one really cared. Sure it was “regrettable” that far away people were dying from some exotic disease, but it “wasn’t our job” to care and save the wretched of the earth. It was easy to gloss over the devastation because it all seemed so far away. News of volunteers, missionaries, and doctors dying from the disease failed to move the typical American, because it confirmed the self-serving belief that those do-gooders totally asked for it by trying to save the world.
Unfortunately for us, viruses and other assorted microorganisms have no concept of visa requirements or immigration policies. Given this lack of understanding, it was only a matter of time before Ebola would defy national borders and bureaucratic red tape and arrive on our shores as the next wave of invasive immigrants. After ravaging West Africa and recording fatality rates as high as 70%, Ebola touched down on Europe’s and America’s shores sometime in the 2nd half of 2014, igniting an outbreak of hysteria and finger pointing.
The honor of being the first person infected outside of Africa belongs to Spanish nurse Teresa Romero, who was officially diagnosed with Ebola in October 2014. She became infected after entering the room of Manuel Garcia Viejo, an elderly priest who was quarantined in a Madrid hospital after getting infected in Sierra Leone doing missionary work. He passed on September 25, 2014, despite the hospital’s best efforts. Fortunately, Ms. Romero made a full recovery–but not before the not-Africa part of the world collectively shat their pants in a fit of panic and madness.
In the wake of her diagnosis, the Spanish authorities acted quickly to quarantine her husband and her dog Excalibur. Despite her family’s objections and protests by animal rights activists, Excalibur was put to death against Ms. Romero’s will without due process. Though dogs and cats were not known to transmit Ebola, it mattered little to a confused and fearful public. The powers that be needed to show that they were doing something–and were willing to do anything–in a crisis with no apparent answers. The death of a dog was deemed a small enough price to pay for maintaining the illusion of safety.
In the meantime, Ebola crossed the Atlantic and landed in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 2014 when Thomas Eric Duncan arrived from Liberia to visit his family. On September 24 he started showing signs of illness, though he did not go to the ER until the next day on September 25, complaining of abdominal pain, dizziness, nausea, and a headache. During his stay, he went through various tests which proved inconclusive. His fever shot to 103, then stabilized to 101. He mentioned to nurses that he had flown in from Liberia, a known Ebola hotspot, though that didn’t ring any alarm bells at the time. He was officially discharged the same day with a prescription for antibiotics and instructions to take Tylenol for the pain. On Sunday, September 28, he was rushed back to the ER in an ambulance, suffering from diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. This time, he is classified as an Ebola risk based on his symptoms and his recent arrival from Liberia. He didn’t last much longer after that, dying on October 8. The Dallas nurses who treated him, Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson, were officially diagnosed with Ebola shortly thereafter. Like Ms. Romero, Pham and Vinson made full recoveries, but not before our country descended into an incoherent lather over immigration, “humane execution“, and Africa. Conspiracy theories spread quickly and gained traction, infecting the collective discourse before flickering out quietly into the night. Eventually, the mood in the country settled down when people realized that Ebola could be beaten with early diagnosis and proper treatment. It wasn’t the 2nd coming of AIDS, and in terms of body count Ebola wasn’t even in the same league as the flu.
To be fair, Ebola truly is a scary disease. But like anything in life, nothing is perfect. There is no known pathogen that has achieved a perfect 100% kill rate (thank god). The vaunted 70% fatality rates recorded in some regions in West Africa are likely an overestimation, because these numbers always exclude people who are naturally immune, or people who have Ebola but are asymptomatic. These numbers only include people who feel sick enough to need treatment. In light of these facts, Ebola isn’t as formidable as its reputation suggests.
Ignorance is the foundation that fear is built on. There’s a lot we don’t know about Ebola and viruses in general–and that’s because we’re either not curious enough or we just didn’t care enough. Though Ebola hysteria brought out some of the worst elements in society, there were some silver linings in the cloud of our collective panic. It forced our government to actually invest in research and solutions. As a society, we were forced to admit our cowardice and cruelty, which contradicted our public values of compassion and fairness. As a result, the panic is over and the outbreak is close to ending.
Many dead Ebola victims would probably be alive today if our government had acted sooner. What would have happened if Ebola had never left West Africa? How many more Africans would have had to die before the rest of the world finally decided to do something about it? Fortunately for the conscience of the human race, we’ll never have to know.