One afternoon two weeks ago, I did my best to calm a friend who'd become fearful that her son would contract Ebola in Syria. The young man had enlisted in the National Guard. She knew the U.S. was bombing ISIS terrorists there, and that people were talking about "boots on the ground." She thought she'd heard about a Syrian Ebola outbreak on TV.
Because others were listening, I didn't want to embarrass her. I suggested she'd misheard a reference to Sierra Leone, a tiny country in the tropical forest of West Africa where the Ebola epidemic rages — thousands of miles from Syria, which borders on Israel. The road to Damascus and all that.
The Bible reference helped. A guy in a John Deere cap backed me up. Syria was definitely not in Africa. My friend was mollified.
I'm sure she's heard plenty more about Ebola since then, possibly even about Sierra Leone, a nation of which most Americans have zero knowledge. A lifelong map nut, I'd have had to search for it myself.
Although my friend is an intelligent person with a lively wit, it wasn't her ignorance of geography I found so surprising. After all, polls showed only 17 percent of Americans could locate Iraq on a map back when the U.S. invaded in 2003. Rather, it was her unreasoning dread of Ebola, a tropical disease wholly limited at that time to three countries in West Africa.
Now that a single Ebola victim from neighboring Liberia has made his way to Dallas, isn't that fear more justifiable? Shouldn't we be running around with our hair on fire like the talking heads on cable TV? Isn't it time for our government to do something drastic, such as banning all travel from West Africa to prevent Ebola-stricken refugees from bringing this terrifying plague to America?
Actually, no and no. Freaking out never helps when there's real danger. For once, I felt sympathetic toward Gov. Rick Perry, who, because the Liberian victim ended up at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas, was compelled to act like a competent government official instead of a carnival barker.
"Rest assured that our system is working as it should," Perry said during a hospital press conference. "Professionals on every level of the chain of command know what to do to minimize this potential risk to the people of Texas and this country."
Of course that wasn't strictly true. Due to a communications snafu too common in hospitals, the first physician who examined the victim wasn't told he'd traveled from Liberia, misread the chart, and bungled the diagnosis.
But that still doesn't mean the sky is falling. Medical experts agree that while deadly in Third World environments, Ebola is both treatable and relatively hard to catch. Patients aren't contagious until they're visibly ill. Even then direct contact with a symptomatic person's bodily fluids — saliva, vomit, stool, urine, etc. — is necessary. Unlike a cold, it can't be transmitted through the air.
Writing in the New Yorker, brilliant surgeon and author Atul Gawande documents a South African case in which some 300 hospital workers treated an undiagnosed Ebola patient for 12 days without contracting the disease.
Isolate patients, monitor their intimate contacts, dispose of their waste properly, and Ebola can be stopped. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the likelihood of a mass Ebola outbreak in the United States is remote.
Perhaps that makes the disgraceful performance of so many self-styled "conservative" pundits and GOP politicians a bit less disturbing. Going all Chicken Little and doing everything possible to use a public health crisis for partisan ends would be even more contemptible if the danger were as great as they pretend.
As usual, Fox News personalities led the charge. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee sought to use Ebola to foment petulant mistrust of government in general and President Obama in particular.
It all somehow reminded him of Benghazi.
"The Ebola scare," Huckabee claimed "goes to the heart of a simple question: Do you trust the government. Audience, do you trust the government?"
Fox News and ABC News contributor Laura Ingraham hosted crank medical conspiracy theorist Dr. Elizabeth Vliet, who accused Obama of downplaying Ebola for political reasons. Rush Limbaugh suggested that the president sees Ebola as a punishment for slavery and won't ban travel to and from West Africa out of political correctness.
Several GOP politicians, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have suggested basically quarantining entire countries, a "solution" that sounds sensible until you think about it for 30 seconds.
For example, would that mean volunteer doctors, nurses, missionaries and soldiers couldn't come home? And then what? A catastrophically worsening epidemic in Africa, that's what.
I'll say this too: If Ebola were happening, in say, Denmark or Belgium, we'd be having a far saner conversation.
But then it couldn't, which is part of the point.