Saturday, 25 October 2014

Be afraid of Ebola. Very afraid. And ashamed.

Ebola’s terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I think it is anyway.

Not because there’s any serious chance I’ll ever catch it, far less die of it. No. My terror is caused by what Ebola tells us about ourselves.

First of all, it appals me that politicians and journalists, two sets of people most of us claim to distrust more than others, can still whip up such a panic in such a short time. We don’t believe these guys when they talk about the economy or war, so why do we believe them when they tell us to be frightened of a disease?

Secondly, it’s profoundly shaming that we worked up no concern about the disease while it only affected West Africans. Now that there seems to be a chance that a few people could be infected in Europe or North America, we are taking it seriously. Indeed, far too seriously.

A courageous victim: Dr Craig Spencer fought Ebola in Guinea
Now his neighbours are panic struck
We seem to have gone from indifference to panic without pausing at any sensible place in between. So our nations failed to come up with the finance needed to fight the disease properly in West Africa. But now, since Dr Craig Spencer came back to New York infected with Ebola, contracted fighting the disease in West Africa, people living in the same block are telling us they’re fearful of infection from touching door handles or lift buttons.

Thirdly, we’re still showing the same indifference to the fate of West Africans. Far more have died of malaria since the outbreak of the crisis than have died of Ebola, but we don’t show the same sense of urgency over malaria as we do over Ebola. Indeed, how many of us know that one of the consequences of the crisis is that large numbers of West Africans will die of other conditions? With health systems at breaking point, with little capacity to handle Ebola and next to none for anything else, stroke or heart attack victims face an uphill battle to be treated.

Ebola in Sierra Leone: a health service at breaking point
No capacity to treat other conditions
Fourthly, Ebola is far from the most serious threat facing us. A handful of Americans or Europeans has been infected, while thousands of our citizens have been killed on our roads. And yet we react calmly to the carnage of the car.

This strikes me as perhaps the most terrifying aspect of our reactions to Ebola. It belongs with our attitudes towards terrorism. Boy, is that working for the people who want us terrified. Britain is gaily giving up civil rights to protect itself from people who might have travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS. So far, such people have killed not a single person in Britain – and yet we should allow the government to overrule Europe Human Rights Courts decisions to protect ourselves from them?

In the US, the paradox is still more obscene. Just yesterday, there was yet another school killing, in Seattle. Fortunately, this one caused fewer deaths than most have in the past: the perpetrator and one of his victims died at once, four other students were hospitalised, three of them in critical condition. That one shooting spree has caused mayhem at the same scale as Ebola has in the US so far. And there are a lot more guns around than there are Ebola carriers.

There have also been a lot more deaths caused, each and every year, by firearms in the US than have been killed even by terrorism. You want to help protect US citizens? Terrorism and Ebola are serious, but more serious still are the car and the gun. ISIS? Certainly target it. But start with the NRA – it does far more damage to the US population.

That’s what I find terrifying about the Ebola crisis. It reveals how cockeyed our priorities are. How easily we’re distracted from things that really matter. How easily our attention is captured instead by far less serious threats.

And notice what ISIS and Ebola have in common: they’re about risk coming from abroad. That nasty strange part of the world so many are telling us to distrust, even fear these days.

Yes. Ebola reveals a lot about us that’s worryingly ugly.

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