There have been many developments in the Ebola news story since I posted about the way Ebola in the U.S. has brought out some of our sinful nature’s tendency toward fear of “the other.” In particular, I expressed concern that prejudice toward Liberians and other West Africans would go wild as our fears increase. And I cited evidence that the Liberian Christians in Texas are experiencing a certain degree of prejudice just by nature of their country of origin, even if they they have been in this country for years.
On October 15, Amber Joy Vinson, another nurse from the Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas that treated Thomas Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola. It came to light that Vinson had traveled via airliner to Cleveland and back despite sustaining a low-grade fever at least on the trip home. Passengers on Vinson’s flights as well as passengers who flew on the same airplane later before it was taken out of commission were notified to monitor their temperatures, although the CDC continues to say that their risk of acquiring the illness is minimal. It now appears Vinson self-reported her low-grade fever to the CDC but was given the all-clear to fly, a decision the CDC has now acknowledged to be a mistake. Vinson is now at Emory University Hospital receiving treatment.
Meanwhile, the first nurse who contracted Ebola from Thomas Duncan, Nina Pham, is being treated at the National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
In addition, a hospital worker who handled bodily fluid samples from Thomas Duncan was discovered to be currently on a cruise ship. Although this health worker is currently symptom-free, the worker has self-isolated on the ship.
Today, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar”, Ron Klain, to oversee the U.S.’s handling of this health concern. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports today that out of 9,216 cases of Ebola worldwide, 4,555 people have now died.
In the midst of the dismaying news regarding Ebola worldwide, I continue to worry that our fears will get the better of us, that our fears will rage out of proportion to the threat, and that we will spend so much time looking self-protectively inward that we will ignore those who are facing far more threat than ourselves. A blog post by a Lutheran pastor, Erik Gronberg, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area said this far better than I managed to say it in my previous post:
This is very real for us here in the Metroplex. But I have a feeling it will be increasingly real for people around this country and ultimately around the world. It is easy to close ourselves off. To spread rumor and fear. To blame and to stereotype. It is harder, much harder, to have courage. To insist that hospitals quickly establish protocols for healthcare workers. To give generously to help stop the spread of this disease where it is most devastating. To recognize that thousands die in this country each year from diseases like the flu or from inadequate access to general health care.
I am afraid. Afraid that instead of mobilizing the massive resources and potential of our great nation to combat this crises here and abroad we will turn inward. “Let them descend into chaos and death” we will say. That the mission to proclaim good news will fall short. That we will lock our gates to our homes, neighborhoods, and ultimately our nation. That even in the church the mission of God in the world will be forgotten in our fear. That the one who can destroy both body and soul will win.
I agree heartily with Pastor Gronberg. Notice, he walks a careful line between cavalier ignorance of risk and the panic that draws us inward.
But I want to be gentle here too. Many of us are afraid. Ebola is a terrifying disease, and even the minor chance that it could spread in our own country is certainly terrifying. I am, without a doubt, a hypochondriac on a good day when there’s no Ebola to worry about. It’s ok to admit we are afraid. What is happening in Africa is a really frightening scenario. Because our world is so interconnected these days, we can easily picture and imagine Ebola happening en masse here too.
But, friends, we have to keep our fear in proportion to the facts. We have to remember and pray for those at most risk: health care workers and close family and friends of the afflicted. We have to let our feelings of fear drive us to prayer for those suffering in earnest in West Africa.
Some have wondered if we should stop traveling on mass transit at all in this country since a few people who might have had exposure to Ebola or who might have been carriers of Ebola have been on airplanes and a cruise ship. Again, we have to put our fear in proportion to the actual risk. There is no such thing as a completely risk-free decision in a broken world. However, there are better risks and worse risks. No, there is no way to be 100% percent sure you won’t come into contact with Ebola (or whooping cough or flu, for that matter) unless you lock yourself in your house . But you can have a pretty decent idea that you are pretty safe.
Here’s something I discovered growing up with a lot of anxiety, fear of germs, and fear of anything that wouldn’t be perfect: closing yourself off to the world has its own risks. You don’t get to build up your immune system as much. You begin to cultivate fear and anxiety as a regular response to life. This is damaging to mental health and to physical health. You miss out on the joy of life.
I think it is reasonable for those who have been in close contact with Ebola patients to self-isolate until the incubation period is past in order to ensure public safety. It is reasonable to avoid contact with those who have been in close contact with such patients or their bodily fluids. It is not reasonable to distance ourselves from anyone who has traveled internationally in recent months or anyone who has traveled on an airplane. It is not realistic or especially helpful to do so. Unless a person on a plane has had close contact with someone who is symptomatic, we do not have reason to worry about being around air travelers. After all, even if there were some strange improbable scenario in which an air traveler unknowingly came in contact with an Ebola patient on a plane, until the air traveler himself became symptomatic, he would be unable to pass the illness along. If you know someone who has stomach flu symptoms or a fever, you should avoid that person regardless of whether they have traveled on a plane or not–not because they in any likelihood have Ebola, but because you may get stomach flu. Common sense is very helpful in times of general panic.
In regard to travel bans from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, I think this is one option we can consider in order to stop the spread of Ebola as long as it can be done with the following considerations appropriately and mercifully dealt with:
–Aid workers are able to easily travel to and from the afflicted areas in West Africa in order to alleviate suffering on behalf of the afflicted African nations, and in order to prevent the spread of Ebola to other nations.
–U.S. military who are selflessly serving in West Africa are able to return home.
–Screening continues at international entry-point airports in the U.S.
–Afflicted West African nations are able to continue to get the supplies, food, and other necessities that they need for survival.
My initial concern with a travel ban was that it would simply follow in the tradition of xenophobia, but I am coming to realize that it might be possible to use it as a common sense tool to stop suffering and affliction if certain humanitarian concerns can be appropriately dealt with. I will continue to pray for leaders both in our nation and around the world that they might make wise decisions from calm minds and not from a state of panic.
Note: If you are particularly concerned about the Ebola outbreak, the CDC’s website is a good source of concrete facts.