Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ebola Comes to America

It was, perhaps, inevitable in this globalized world where anyone can get on a plane and travel almost anywhere. Like the unwelcome discovery Americans were forced to face in the 1940s that the Atlantic and Pacific no longer were the barriers they once had been and could no longer keep the world's conflicts at a distance, the arrival of Ebola likewise forces us to face the fact that exotic, foreign diseases do not remain foreign forever.

It is unlikely that this disease will spread widely or that the kind of complete panic and social breakdown we are witnessing elsewhere will take over here. "I have no doubt that we will control this case of Ebola so that it does not spread widely in this country," said Thomas Frieden, the Director of the Center for Disease Control, quoted by Benjamin Wallace-Wells ( - "The Lessons of the Dallas Ebola Case," New York Magazine). Frieden, the CDC, and the American medical establishment have a high degree of confidence in our advanced system of isolation care, contact monitoring, etc. "But," warns Wallace-Wells, "the small errors at Presbyterian Hospital on Thursday show something about why despite heroic efforts, doctors and health officials in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have still not been able to contain the disease there — why it seems as hellish as ever. The Presbyterian Hospital episode shows, in other words, just how perfect a system of medical isolation and containment needs to be."

Perfection, alas, often easily eludes us. And so, while chances are that the U.S. will escape any serious spread of the disease, we worry nonetheless, because our experience - especially in recent decades - has repeatedly taught us that we are no longer as good as we used to be in this country at addressing our problems and fixing them, and that we are obviously far from perfect. 

Fear, as FDR famously reminded us, can be paralyzing. It can inhibit wise and necessary action. Such certainly seems to be the case with the kind of panicked responses we have seen elsewhere in this and other epidemics. On the other hand, fear can be a good motivator. It is fear, after all, that causes me to get my flu shot every fall, as I did just yesterday! Of course, a flu shot is something I can actually do on my own. Apart from not travelling to West Africa (something no one who is not a health worker or diplomat has any business doing right now!), there is next to nothing I as an individual can do, no action i can take, to make me feel more secure. Hence we worry.

Managing our fears, responding prudently to dangers without complete panic and paralysis, is a perennial challenge of social living and of political leadership. It calls for trust in our leaders, something sadly in increasingly short supply as our culture's social breakdown continues at its already alarming pace.

On this feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, we have all the more reason to pray intentionally today's responsorial psalm - the psalm traditionally (i.e., until 1911 in the Roman Rite) used every night at Compline. You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, Nor the pestilence that roams in darkness,nor the plague that ravages at noon (Psalm 91:5-6).

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