America's Dangerous Ebola Advice

America's Dangerous Ebola Advice

By Heather Wilhelm - October 16, 2014

If you lived in New York City during the September 11 terrorist attacks, you can attest to one rather remarkable fact: Nobody really panicked. On a day when Manhattan looked like a scene from some horrible, over-the-top sci-fi production, the vast majority of people kept calm, carried on, and watched out for their neighbors. In the hours following the attacks, even though many people were certain another shoe was about to drop, countless New Yorkers left their apartments to line up at blood donation stations across the city. 

New Yorkers, of course, are a notoriously tough lot. But across the country, the reaction of most Americans mirrored that of Manhattan’s. Weeks later, when the World Trade Center site was still smoking, friends flew in to visit. People were nervous to fly, but they sucked it up and did so anyway. The instinct across America, admirably, was to band together, not hole up in a stockpiled panic room.

Thirteen years later, our government betters have seemingly forgotten all of this.  Now that Ebola is in America (an event, you might remember, that was labeled “highly unlikely” just weeks ago) the relentless drumbeat from the CDC and our president can be summed up in six words: “Don’t panic! It’s no big deal!” The second part of that, invariably delivered in a smug, clinical tone, is essentially this: “There’s no way you can ever catch Ebola, you dummies, unless you regularly mainline raw sewage, like they all do in Africa!”

Early on, official narratives from the CDC and the president loudly assured Americans that they could catch Ebola only from “close contact” with exotic “bodily fluids” like blood and semen. Americans were simultaneously assured that there was no way you could catch Ebola on, say, a bus or a plane, and that they were silly and paranoid to think otherwise. Later, of course, the CDC quietly admitted that the Ebola virus can survive on dried surfaces for hours and could even potentially be passed through a sneeze.

Oh, well. Details, details. The official, high-level strategy to combat Ebola—which, it bears repeating, is a contagious virus that can literally liquefy your insides—appears to be the same foolproof strategy that was recently used to not lock the front door of the White House. It is, in other words, completely devoid of common sense.

I was reminded of said strategy this morning, when I wandered into my kitchen, half-asleep, and discovered a live scorpion lounging like Marlon Brando in the garbage disposal of the sink. Let it be noted: I did not panic. What I did was a) rain relentless death upon the scorpion, mercilessly firing the dish hose at full throttle; b) jam the corpse down the disposal using a five-foot broom handle; c) turn on the disposal, chopping the spiky infiltrator into a thousand scorpion pieces; d) pour an entire container of bleach down the drain; e) dump another gallon of water on top of that; f) turn around to see my kids staring at me in wide-eyed awe, as if they had just caught the legendary Grinch attempting to shove their Christmas tree all the way up the chimney.

You know what? I am thorough, and I should probably be running the CDC. If the CDC’s current director, Dr. Tom Frieden, had been in my kitchen—and I say “current” because I sincerely hope he will become “former” very soon—he would scoff, tell me I was seeing things, insist that there was no way a scorpion could possibly climb up a garbage disposal, and then studiously apply poisonous Windex to all of my apples while the scorpion made an elaborate birthing nest in his hair.

Absurdities aside, this is a serious problem, and it is being handled by profoundly unserious people. Literal, irrational panic, of course, is a bad thing. A bit of healthy fear and caution is not. Unfortunately, in their valiant quest to stop silly, benighted Americans from their recurring habits of hysterical public sobbing, randomly firing AK-47s in the air, and running around in circles, shrieking, while pledging allegiance to various wild-eyed, wild-haired street preachers, the government has spent the last two weeks promoting a fairly dangerous message: “Don’t panic! It’s no big deal!” It’s pretty tone-deaf, considering their mind-blowing incompetence on Ebola thus far.  It certainly fuels mistrust—and, ironically, it could lead to actual panic.

“Don’t panic! It’s no big deal!” is what led a Dallas nurse, infected with the virus after treating America’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan—and told by countless “experts” that she had absolutely nothing to worry about—to think nothing about boarding a plane to Cleveland with a low-grade fever. “Don’t panic! It’s no big deal!” is what led Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, according to various reports, to shockingly mismanage Duncan’s treatment, compromising the safety of dozens and allowing at least two young nurses to get infected.

By all means, when it comes to Ebola, no one should panic. But it seems reasonable at this point to note that we should cast a skeptical eye at anyone who blithely says that Ebola is “no big deal.”  It’s an attitude that’s not just condescending. In Dallas and elsewhere, it could turn out to be deadly.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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