We Did Good on Ebola. It's the Spin that Got Us.

Hoping it's not bad luck to say this so soon, knocking on wood, rubbing my figurative rabbit's foot (my wife won't let me carry a real one), but I think this city and maybe even the nation deserve praise for overwhelming equanimity in the face of the first American Ebola cases. What the response so far shows is that we handle the truth a lot better than we do lies, and we tend to have real respect for real doctors as opposed to spin doctors.

Sure, there has been some flat-out goofiness, as in the school district in Maine that sent a teacher into quarantine because she had attended a conference in Dallas. But people in Maine are famously xenophobic anyway. Just like Texans.

Closer to home, we have our own Highland Park school district where school nurses had to urge students and teachers not to oppress the elementary school daughter of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins for being the offspring of a person who had been in close physical proximity with the asymptomatic relatives of an Ebola victim. But I don't have to explain that one, do I? It's the Park Cities, where everything and all of life are summed up in one word -- bubble.

See also: Highland Park ISD Wants Parents to Know They Are Safe From Clay Jenkins and His Family

And in fact some of the reactions being dubbed now as panic or crazy ought to be viewed in light of the duplicity of officials when Ebola first arrived here. It's really not so crazy that some Dallas-area suburban school districts shut down schools when they found out someone connected with a school had been on the same plane with Amber Vinson, the famous flying Ebola nurse.

To put that in context we need to go back to the serial deceptions foisted on the public by Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, followed by disturbing charges from their own nursing staff that they were being scapegoated by corporate spin-doctors.

See also: Contradictions, Mistakes and Bullshit Are What Worry Us in Ebola Response

And let's not forget the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which started out claiming there was zero chance of Ebola spreading beyond Patient Zero. It's gratifying, at least, to see Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, telling ABC News Sunday that maybe the initial promises were part of the problem: "We always get caught," Fauci said, "when we say zero. Nothing is zero."

Somebody needs to put that one on the wall. Only Patient Zero was zero. From now on, no more zero.

See also: CDC Boss Frieden, "That Is Not in the Cards"

It should be understandable that people reacted with fear and a lack of trust when they found out they were being fed a bunch of spin-lines instead of truth. The New York Times today quotes a professor of "decision sciences," Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon, as saying trust has two equally essential elements.

"One is competence and one is honesty," he told the Times. "The hospital in Dallas changed its story three times. So while most people know there are very few cases and this is not an easily transmissible virus, they also know the human system for managing this is imperfect, and they don't know whether they are getting the straight story about it."

Another element that certainly helped drive some of the more rash reactions was a general impression, far from wrong, that nobody was in charge. At certain key points I slapped my forehead and told myself, "OK, that's it, that's the very bottom. An un-cleared Ebola-exposed person with an elevated temperature gets on an airplane anyway. It can't get worse than that."

Then, of course, I made the mistake of looking at my iPad and learned there was an un-cleared Ebola-exposed person on a cruise ship. That was flat-out heebie-jeebies for me. Never say never. I started wondering if I was making it worse by slapping my forehead.

In fact given the full reality and all that we have been through since this began, everybody deserves a letter grade of A+ for not truly panicking. We do know what real panic is, right? Everybody has seen a zombie movie by now.

See also: Maine Now Quarantining People for Setting Foot in Dallas

What we did was maybe get appropriately nervous, given the level of sheer incompetence and duplicity coming at us from high quarters. But panic? No way. If you want to see real panic on my own part, tell me the CDC is sending someone to live in my house. That's when I strap bags of canned goods to my bicycle and try to make it to Mexico.

The lesson in the Ebola story so far is that Ebola itself didn't upset people half as much as corporate spin-doctors and Big Brother politicians who treated us as if we were gullible children. I don't know where people get the idea we're all a bunch of fraidy-cats and sissies who have to be handled with kid gloves. Our entire history shows we can handle very tough challenges, as long as we know what's really going on.

In 1840 in volume two of his great work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who came to see what we were all about, summed up the typical American as, "in short, a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an ax, and a file of newspapers."

Worth keeping in mind.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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