Friday is Halloween. So is today and tomorrow, and so was yesterday.
In 21st century America, every day is Halloween. Every day, we find something with which to scare ourselves, something to obsess over and be terrified by. I sometimes think we’ve turned civic life into a long-running horror movie that we watch in order to feel frightened, and to give us something tangible on which to focus the otherwise groundless sense of dread that pervades our culture.
Yes, we in the media play a major role in creating that atmosphere. Fear sells. It titillates. It makes our hearts beat a little faster, it sets the adrenalin flowing and somewhere deep in our lizard brains, we like that feeling. We court it, for the same reason that we enjoy identifying with the characters in disaster movies and horror movies.
But characters in horror movies … they tend to do stupid things. And so do we. That’s because fear makes us stupid. Fear makes us think in terms of very short-term survival, without regard to longer term consequences. Fear insists that we act now, immediately, even if acting now means that we increase risk overall.
And of course, the latest iteration of all this is the controversy surrounding Ebola.
Ignoring the advice of experts at the Centers for Disease Control as well as pleas from international health officials, elected officials in New Jersey, New York, Maryland and elsewhere have imposed what amounts to mandatory quarantine on health workers returning from the fight against Ebola in West Africa. This week, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal joined them, requiring returning health workers to serve a 21-day isolation period, even if they have no symptoms and thus are not contagious.
That is not acting out of caution. That is acting out of fear, and it’s particularly troubling to see such action here in Georgia, the headquarters of the CDC. Health workers are going to the front lines on our behalf, risking their lives against a terrible disease on our behalf. If Ebola somehow breaks containment from West Africa into the larger world, it won’t be attributable to a few individuals traveling back and forth on planes. As public health experts continue to remind us, that particular threat is perfectly containable.
But if we can’t bring the medical, communications and logistical resources to bear on the disease where it is now rampaging, if 5,000 cases becomes 10,000 cases becomes 50,000 cases becomes 100,000 cases, if society and the economy break down and large numbers of people start fleeing the region in panic, taking the virus with them, then the problem becomes much more real. And according to international aid experts, we are thousands of doctors and nurses short of what we need to contain the disease.
With the new rules, a six-week volunteer commitment to Doctors Without Borders — six weeks not making an income, under harsh, heart-breaking conditions, exposed to a deadly disease — becomes a nine-week commitment, with the last three weeks served in isolation somewhere for reasons that have nothing to do with science or medicine, and everything to do with short-term, fear-driven emotion.
Instead of encouraging such heroism, we discourage and penalize it, and by doing so we increase the risk that we attempt to minimize.