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Business Casual: Fear And Loathing

Last summer, when the first two Ebola patients arrived in Atlanta from West Africa, I was proud that my hometown was offering them care and surprised when there were rumbles about whether public safety was in jeopardy.

Three months later, when the check-in procedure at my doctor’s office included a question about recent travel abroad, it seemed as routine as showing an insurance card.

In between, there was a lot to take in. Something that had seemed a distant tragedy being addressed by the appropriate officials had hit close to home.

The man in Texas who died of Ebola was initially sent home from a hospital emergency room before being admitted. Two nurses who treated him, despite wearing protective gear, contracted the virus.

Emotions were engaged fairly rapidly. Reaction was all over the place, on official and unofficial levels.

The family of the Texas victim was subjected to a crude, makeshift form of quarantine. A random woman on an airplane, who did not have the Ebola virus, was confined to the restroom when she became ill during a flight. Health professionals were criticized for providing care in West African countries.

One minute, it seemed, we were hearing from medical spokespeople reminding us how difficult it is to contract Ebola; the next, we were watching TV news footage of police in Maine following a non-symptomatic health worker recently back from Africa as she rode her bike near her home.

Various state and local jurisdictions, including school systems, were hurriedly coming up with policies and guidelines, often conflicting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded a little hesitant at times and did not always convey the sense of “we’ve got this” that most of us were anxious for. A little late, the agency acknowledged it should have sent a team to Texas earlier than it did.

The grownups, it seemed, were not entirely in agreement.

In Newton County, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the ex-wife of a CDC ecologist who had been in Sierra Leone was sent home from her teaching job. A family member of another CDC employee who had been there was booted temporarily from a teaching position in Henry County.

Even those of us rolling our eyes at some instance of over-reaction found ourselves Googling the infectious disease policy at our grandchildren’s school.

Inevitably, the response polarized; the enlightened scoffed at the fears of the unenlightened. I’m not entirely sure it didn’t factor into the November elections.

Truthfully, there wasn’t a lot of good, cohesive information circulated ahead of the U.S. crisis. The rational part of me understands that this was a tough issue that caught many by surprise; the other part wonders who could or should have anticipated what.

In retrospect, it seems naïve to think that something that happens in “far-off Africa” could not find its way to our shores.

I am horrified at those who want to prevent healthcare workers from traveling to West Africa to help treat Ebola patients there, even as I am in awe of those who are able and willing to put themselves on the frontlines. At the same time, I am more conscious of people around me, especially if they are coughing or looking feverish.

Some of the Ebola reaction was chillingly reminiscent of that of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which is disturbing.

I understand that people’s fear is real – even if it isn’t rational – and simply belittling that fear is not an effective way to fight it.

Certainly the media played a part: responsible media outlets reported responsibly; the less responsible were happy to write headlines with exclamation points or provide a forum for uninformed “experts.”

Still, as a people, we are adaptable. As the Ebola story unfolded – the Texas nurses recovered, others waited out their quarantine successfully – sane voices made themselves heard, and we all calmed down.

At the very least, we have had our consciousness raised on the dangers of seasonal flu, which is much more of a threat to our citizenry than Ebola. (I’ve had my flu shot, and I’m doing a lot more hand-washing these days.)

I understand why people were afraid, but I hope we have all taken a deep breath and will continue our education process.

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