A few Ebola cases terrify U.S., a predictably American response

A resident of the Ivy Apartments at 7225 Fair Oaks in Dallas, Texas, talks to the news media gathered at the fence of the complex Oct. 1, 2014. Timothy Duncan, who was diagnosed and later died of ebola was staying there.
A resident of the Ivy Apartments at 7225 Fair Oaks in Dallas, Texas, talks to the news media gathered at the fence of the complex Oct. 1, 2014. Timothy Duncan, who was diagnosed and later died of ebola was staying there. Star-Telegram

For Triston Crowl, 20, the arrival of teams dressed in yellow hazmat suits looking for Ebola in his Dallas neighborhood – helicopters flying overhead – felt like living the opening scene of a movie that wouldn’t end well.

“People were freaking out,” said Crowl, who stocks the shelves at a local arts and crafts store. “People were looking at them like they were zombies.”

The death of Crowl’s neighbor, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient identified with Ebola in the United States, set off a wave of anxiety and fear across the country and political knee-jerking that’s becoming more and more familiar in the United States.

The U.S. government wasn’t ready when Duncan was turned away from the hospital with a misdiagnosis only to return days later and die in near-isolation. Two of his nurses became infected, and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to admit that more could have been done to protect medical staff.

What happened next was predictably American: The public was rocked with nightmares about spreading microscopic viruses and bioterrorism, like the scares that followed anthrax, avian flu and H1N1 swine flu. Politicians, both Republican and Democratic, sought to score political points or prove they were willing to do more than anyone else should another case arise.

Hundreds of microphone-wielding journalists and their television cameras flooded into Dallas to speak with neighbors of Duncan’s and give minute-by-minute updates of the nurses and those who’ve been quarantined. At least two students from Nigeria who applied to a small Texas college were told they wouldn’t be admitted because of Ebola.

Elsewhere, a teacher from a Maine elementary school was placed on leave after parents worried she might have been exposed to Ebola during a trip to Dallas for an educational conference. Syracuse University rescinded an invitation to a Washington Post photographer over fears about his reporting trip to Liberia. In Washington, D.C., a bus was quarantined at the Pentagon when a passenger vomited in the parking lot.

When caught unprepared in a crisis, Americans have a tendency to see things in apocalyptic terms, said Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. It may not be a uniquely American trait, but it’s one that appears we’re particularly conditioned to and bound to repeat.

“We are a people of plenty. We’re the richest nation on Earth,” Lichtman said. “We have unparalleled prosperity, yet we have this anxiety that it may not last. This external force over which we don’t seem to have any control can cut at the heart of American contentment and prosperity.”

The fears are also tied up into worries about fleeting materialism, a culture of religion and, he said, a healthy dose of apocalyptic themes in popular culture through movies, television and comic books.

“It may not be real in our lives, but it is certainly ever present and immensely popular in our culture,” he said.

The government response to the Ebola virus continued this week. A 30-member military team is training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas in the event of another Ebola case in the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented restrictions that funnel all travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea through any of five U.S. airports with enhanced screening. And the CDC requires these travelers to check their temperature and give daily health reports to their state or local heath authorities for 21 days.

President Barack Obama tried to calm anxious Americans, urging them not to overreact, and he explained that the government was doing everything it could to keep citizens safe. Speaking from the Oval office this week, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” about progress in Dallas, where more than 65 people have been released from 21-day Ebola quarantines, including Duncan’s fiancee, Louise Troh, and her 13-year-old son, Timothy.

“The public health infrastructure and systems that we are now putting in place across the board around the country should give the American people confidence that we’re going to be in a position to deal with any additional cases of Ebola that might crop up without it turning into an outbreak,” he said.

Even with the Ebola diagnosis late Thursday of a doctor in New York who’d recently treated patients in Guinea, there are but a handful of known active cases in the United States. Yet a Pew Research Center poll this week found that 41 percent of Americans worry about themselves or someone in their families being exposed to Ebola.

The country was rightfully shaken by Duncan’s death, the infection of two nurses and more than 175 people placed under surveillance in Texas, experts say. But still, at least in the United States, the flu remains more deadly. Flu and pneumonia killed more than 53,000 people in 2010, according to the CDC. Heart disease killed 597,000. Cancer killed 577,000.

Psychologists and sociologists warn that the barrage of news coverage about Ebola in the country and the stoking of fears by some politicians amplify the anxiety. Andrew Noymer, a sociologist who studies infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine, said the greater concern – and where the nation’s focus was merited – was how the disease was spreading overseas.

“There has been a lot of talk about Ebola in the United States,” he said. “I wish there was more talk about Ebola in West Africa.”

More than 5,000 people have died across West Africa, mainly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. With many cases going unreported and United Nations estimates that infections could be doubling every three to four weeks, the fears are that cases might reach into the hundreds of thousands by the end of the year.

With crucial U.S. midterm elections around the corner, some politicians have tried to capitalize on the concerns, analyst say. It’s too early to tell what impact Ebola will have on the elections, but analyst Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia noted that midterm elections are largely driven by anger and fear. He said the best politicians could connect policy to things their constituents were tuned in to.

“I can certainly imagine a political strategist thinking when this Ebola thing happened, like, ‘Hey, we got to hammer on this, because people are going to identify with it,’ ” Kondik said. “It’s a very cynical way of looking at it, but it’s how this stuff works.”

In North Carolina, politician Thom Tillis, who’s in a tight race to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, was the first Republican Senate candidate to call for a ban on travelers from Ebola-affected nations. Days later, Hagan did too. Other demands for a ban have come from other members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on both sides of the aisle.

In today’s post-Hurricane Katrina climate, a government being unprepared – or that appears unprepared – can have disastrous political consequences.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, puts Ebola in the same category as other recent crises – such as the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and the Secret Service scandals – that have shaken the public’s confidence in the government.

She cites polls that show Americans are less concerned about the epidemic coming to the United States than whether the government is prepared if it does.

“Is the government ready?” she asked.

One of the most popular shows on television right now is the “The Walking Dead,” in which the premise is a pandemic: The world is take over by flesh-eating zombies caused by a mysterious virus.

Kondik, the University of Virginia political analyst, said his friends had noted that the Dallas situation was eerily similar to the plot of the popular 1995 movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman, about a fictional Ebola-like virus called Motaba that spread from Africa to a small town in California.

Scott Sigler, a best-selling science-fiction writer who wrote the books “Infected” and “Pandemic,” said the Ebola crisis had all the elements that Americans had been conditioned to expect in entertainment: a contagious disease with a 70 percent death rate, and the government saying people shouldn’t worry. In the movie “Jaws,” he said, the town didn’t shut down the beach after the first shark attack. The animal goes on a rampage, killing beachgoers and terrorizing the community.

“Here are all of these things we’ve watched in movies, on TV and read in books time and time again. And here it is playing out according to that plot,” Sigler said. “We all know how those movies end up. Those movies always end up with a gigantic outbreak and millions of people dying.”

Of course, people are nervous, he said.

Crowl, who lives in Duncan’s Dallas neighborhood, just wants the movie to end. He thinks the exposure has been negative. As a person who’s taken in his share of apocalyptic shows, he feels a bit desensitized to the situation. But he sees lingering fears throughout the community.

“I don’t want this place known as Ebola central,” he said.