A major theme -- a very dangerous one -- in the reaction here to the arrival of Ebola is the notion that we are protected by our cultural and economic superiority from the kind of contagion now in Africa and that all we need to do is remain calm. I sincerely question whether calm is our most appropriate response right now.
Instead of mere calm we should maintain intense aggressive vigilance to the obvious vulnerabilities of our health care system, not to mention our culture. After all, that's how we got here.
Yesterday, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson started off the day with an assertion that American Ebola Victim Zero, Thomas Eric Duncan, probably brought about the current crisis through his own foreign stupidity, exploiting the political correctness of liberals at Presbyterian Hospital. Robberson tied the Ebola story to the invader at the White House, theorizing that both the White House and Presbyterian were breached because of the timidity of officials.
Under the headline, "The common link between Ebola and the White House breach," Robberson wrote: "In both cases, it appears, the people in charge erred on the side of caution and perhaps even a concern for political correctness in not taking more aggressive measures to ensure the greater priority of avoiding catastrophe."
Suggesting broadly that Duncan pulled a fast one on gullible hospital officials, Robberson said, "This traveler, if educated and American, almost certainly would have volunteered that crucial information."
Later in the day when it was learned Duncan's party did inform the hospital of his travels and the hospital did nothing, Robberson had to eat his words. But the danger I'm talking about is in that first shoot-from-the-hip reaction, with all its arrogance and xenophobia. Robberson is an editorial writer at the city's only daily newspaper. How emblematic is his thinking of the way others in the city may react? In addition to being stupid, his first-blush narrative misdirected attention that ought to have been focused on the hospital.
What is that full story? Has anyone considered the possibility that the hospital's decision to get rid of a patient from Liberia was not unintentional? We have a long-established issue in Dallas of patient dumping from emergency rooms. We should be urgently trying to determine which category Presbyterian's actions fell into in this case, the choices being stupidity, sloppiness and criminality.
Since the behavior of Presbyterian may predict the way other Dallas hospitals will react when they get their first walk-in Ebola patients, I don't think we should be all that calm about it until we know exactly what happened, in full.
It's not just Robberson. Some of the cultural chauvinism in the general response so far is almost laughable. Today's Dallas Morning News op-ed page includes an upbeat Ebola essay by an epidemiologist under the headline, "Good news on Ebola is its relatively slow spread." And God knows we need that upbeat side of the Ebola story.
In his essay the writer says, "But while the virus has not changed much in more than a decade, many parts of Africa are very different. People live in much denser quarters, and the population is also much more mobile than before. This increases opportunities for the virus to reach new areas where new chains of transmission can grow and become established."
Clearly the author has never visited the "Five Points" neighborhood of Dallas, where immigrants, many from Africa, live packed like sardines into crumbling apartment complexes built for swinging stewardesses in the 1980s. In the same newspaper with the upbeat essay about our economic superiority, another story reports that the five school children with whom Duncan came into contact, presumably while contagious, were occupants of the same apartment Duncan was living in. Five kids and uncounted other adults, in other words, were living in the same two-bedroom apartment in a tattered immigrant neighborhood in Dallas. How superior does that make us feel? How calm?
The New York Times today describes the scene in the neighborhood: "At an African cafe down the street from the apartment complex where Mr. Duncan had been staying with relatives and a middle school attended by one or two of the students being monitored, a group of Ethiopian men and women sat talking at a table outside. No one knew Mr. Duncan or his family, and one woman was unfamiliar with Ebola and its effects."
Just to make sure we all understand, the neighborhood is a jam-packed, poorly served, cheaply built outpost of Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the Third World. The Daily Mail and NBC News today offer these glimpses:
"One neighbor, Mesud Osmanovic, told NBC that Mr. Duncan was 'throwing up all over the place' outside the apartment block as he was helped into an ambulance while his hysterical family looked on.
"Residents pay $800 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
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SHOW ME HOW
"... a man in his 20s entered the family's apartment in North Dallas, holding what appeared to be a roll of black garbage bag, suggesting the family are disposing of items which may have been infected.
"Two women in their 20s also visited the apartment for a short while.
"The (isolation) orders were hand-delivered to the family members on Wednesday evening by local health officials."
The real lesson here is that all of our wealth and all of our vaunted procedures are worthless when they are defeated by our own arrogance and stupidity. Nothing against calm. Calm is a wonderful thing, especially because it feels so good. But we earn calm. I just don't think we're there yet.