I was in the kitchen rummaging around for a snack last night when I heard the NY1 anchor interrupt his broadcast with a News Alert that New York City's Dr. Craig Spencer had tested positive for the Ebola virus. And then I did what anybody alone in an apartment with Ebola news sans context and restraint would do: I freaked the fuck out.
I texted my entire family and told them that somebody in New York City had Ebola. Then I went on Twitter, to freak out in community with others newly afraid to leave their own houses. "We r fucked!!!" I texted my boyfriend, who was waiting to perform a comedy set in Manhattan. "Bye," I wrote on Facebook next to a linked New York Times article about the illness's arrival in the Big Apple. I racked my brain for what I did the night before. I saw a movie at BAM. I took a cab home. I touched my face a lot. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.
I returned to the kitchen and retrieved from the fridge the items necessary to make a Stress Cheese Plate. I opened a beer.
The news anchor calmly explained that Spencer had picked up the virus in Guinea, where he was treating patients affected by the worst outbreak of the disease in history. The night before Spencer checked himself into Bellevue Hospital, he had ridden three different subway lines from his home in Harlem to a bowling alley in Williamsburg.
Then I got a text message from a friend, a doctor in Chicago. Chill out, it said. Another email from a friend in the city, one who has actually worked in public health and lived through developed world diseases, reminding me that I'm not going to get Ebola, that the likelihood of anybody catching Ebola from anything Spencer touched is laughably slim.
They're right. Irrational fear is wrong. There is no need to go Rand Paul on this one. Let's breathe.
A coalescence of semi-related cultural events has made it much easier for America to collectively froth back into panic again. The Ebola storyline as hyperbolic infotainment was losing steam. The two nurses in Dallas who contracted the disease from Thomas Eric Duncan are on the road to recovery (Nina Pham was just declared disease-free). People who lived in close quarters with Duncan after he began showing symptoms have been released from their quarantine without ever coming down with symptoms.
But the public still wanted More Ebola. Richard Preston, author of seminal Ebola novel (and the only book that ever made me feel like I was going to pass out) The Hot Zone, had a piece in this week's issue of The New Yorker. This week, the world heard leaked strains of Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York," which New Yorkers agree is the Ebola of songs. And, of course, we can't ignore the political side of this; Republicans seeking to eek out wins in closely contested races around the country are served politically by harping on a disease that in their minds (and, they hope, to their constituents) represents a failure of the government they hate. It's why some #tcot people on Twitter are calling it "Obola." (Because Obama.)
It's true that Spencer's path through the New York City Subways and Ubers and into a crowded bowling alley in a crowded neighborhood is the perfect the spooky story for the Halloween season. But, as many, many experts futilely attempting to urge calm have said, it's very difficult to catch Ebola from the subway, or from a bowling ball. The only way to contract Ebola is through contact with the bodily fluids or surfaces contaminated with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic person with Ebola (or of a person who died of the disease). Put simply, that means that if Spencer wasn't experiencing symptoms when he was on the train or at the bowling alley, he didn't leave little viruses lying around for you to pick up and grind into your eye sockets with your grubby fingers.
We're not facing the potential for the same sort of out of control outbreak that faces undercapitalized and understaffed clinics in Western Africa, or even that clusterfuck nightmare of a hospital in Dallas. Spencer was transported to a hospital prepared to house an Ebola patient, accompanied by a hazmat team. His fiancée has also been isolated and is being observed for symptoms. We've got doctors who specialize in this at the ready. New York City is not fucking around.
The improbability of a New York City outbreak hasn't stopped Ebola panic from getting stupider by the day. Just this morning, California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa repeatedly brought up the country of Guyana, which is in South America, during a House hearing on Ebola, which is infecting people in the country of Guinea, which is in West Africa. Politico spilled hundreds of words on New York State's readiness to "handle" Ebola (our one single case of Ebola). A supplement company is hawking its own cure for the disease, claiming on its website that the virus "cannot live in the presence of cinnamon bark." A school in New Jersey refused to allow two Rwandan kids to attend classes due to Ebola fears, even though nobody in Rwanda has come down with Ebola and Rwanda is across the continent from the outbreak. On Fox News this weekend, George Will spewed contaminated bullshit about how some doctors believe that the virus can be spread via the air, like a cold (not a fact. Opposite of a fact.) And today, Fox News featured KISS frontman/public health expert Gene Simmons on to discuss the disease and its implications. Seriously.
Morning Joe even put together this graphic, which maps out where the Ebola patient supposedly went, including sections of the train that the Spencer had no earthly reason to ride. (New Yorkers, you understand: what kind of a maniac would take the A from the Upper West Side all the way over to Broadway Junction to catch the L heading to Manhattan if his final destination was Williamsburg??? Just switch at 8th ave!)
And, as for the aforementioned Rand Paul, he's been flying his crazy flag all over the right wing media lately, in what MSNBC calls a "very public, very aggressive campaign to convince Americans to ignore public-health experts."
Unless Spencer was barfing all over the subway poles or smearing his vomit up and down the doors, or rode the subway directly to your house, where he stole your sports bras and went for a vigorous jog right before you came home and licked his sweaty bra and he was exhibiting symptoms at the time, nobody needs to freak out. NY1's Errol Lewis, growing visibly weary of the panic, facetiously suggested on TV that perhaps the feces-eaters of New York City should take a few days off. Because it's not easy to catch Ebola. It's not the flu or a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria evolving as we speak in health care facilities. It's not a cold. It's not even herpes.
While understandable given the horror of the disease, sustained Ebola panic in America is not rational. As an approach to life, it's miserable. As a media strategy, it's irresponsible. And, as a political strategy, it's questionable. If right wing operatives want to convince their supporters to get out and vote, perhaps the best way to do that isn't to convince their base that the world is full of invisible bugs that will make them shit themselves to death.
You'd be better channeling your paranoia into something useful. Instead of freaking out about your virtually nonexistent odds of falling ill, why not donate to the people who are actually helping?
Image via Getty