For all the talk about globalization, most Americans still think in very local ways. We generally ignore distant problems that we cannot see, and then we overreact when they arrive at our shores. Overnight, the ignored and unseen becomes an obsessive and all-consuming public fear. Once the foreign threat emerges as a domestic problem, Americans assume that overweening power is necessary to prevent a recurrence.
Few Americans thought about Afghanistan or al-Qaeda until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In response, Americans quickly reversed their apathy and turned the fight against foreign terrorism into a generational calling, sending our soldiers around the globe while restricting constitutional protections for privacy and due process at home. Many historians would now say that the United States starved its domestic needs (in education, infrastructure and economic development) as it spent its resources in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions that remain dominated by terrorists. The excesses of military intervention have, at least in part, weakened the United States and made the terrorist threat worse throughout the Middle East.
The same dynamic of apathy and overreaction dominates the current discussion of Ebola. Formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, the disease is a virus that first arose in wild animals and then spread to human populations in Central Africa during the 1970s. The virus remained rare until 2014, when medical professionals reported a new outbreak in West Africa, starting in Guinea and then spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia. During the summer of 2014 the director of the World Health Organization declared Ebola a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”
American citizens barely noticed, and our government did little in response. During the summer of 2014 medical experts from around the world decried the absence of serious international efforts to send large-scale assistance to poor West African health institutions unable to grapple with the spread of the deadly virus. Ebola is not airborne; it is transmitted through bodily fluids. Diagnosing and separating Ebola sufferers from others is an essential mechanism for stopping its spread. Without sufficient help, the weak governments in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were unable to maintain patient quarantines.
Little about this story appeared relevant to Americans until the first Ebola sufferer arrived in the United States, from Liberia, on Sept. 19. The diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas 10 days later, and his subsequent death, made the threat of the virus real to Americans. A nurse who cared for Duncan has tested positive for Ebola despite wearing protective gear, highlighting the risks of contagion.
As one would expect, panic has begun to pervade public discussion. Major news media warn of a pandemic spreading across the United States. Mayors and governors call for special task forces to protect the public. U.S. customs officials have begun to examine visitors coming from West Africa for evidence of Ebola. The pressures to separate people suspicious of carrying the virus, even if there is little evidence, will surely build in coming weeks. A few new cases in the United States, Canada and Europe could contribute to increased public panic.
Precautions within the United States make good sense. Readiness requires provisions for separating and treating sufferers before they infect others. Quick and accurate diagnoses are necessary, followed by clear procedures for quarantine and hospitalization. Officials in Dallas were not ready for the first case, but federal, state and city governments must now work together to prepare for future patients.
Luckily, medical experts do not expect the virus to spread throughout the United States. It is, in fact, not very contagious where basic sanitary conditions and precautions are maintained. With proper knowledge, American health institutions have the resources to separate and treat sufferers, preventing further infections. Public panic is understandable, but it is a predictable exaggeration of the domestic threat.
The real danger is that the focus on risks within the United States will further diminish attention to the sources of the current virus in West Africa. That is where it began its recent spread, and that is where it threatens whole communities. It is not the citizens traveling from West Africa who are the threat; it is the continued infection of people there that causes mass suffering and creates growing international dangers.
Americans must protect themselves by thinking in balanced global terms. We cannot afford to ignore the Ebola crisis in West Africa, but we cannot solve the problem alone. The time has come for us to step forward and lead a large multinational effort to bring needed health assistance to the region. That includes basic resources for diagnoses, treatments and quarantines. It means working closely with local officials as partners. Most of all, it requires us to open our eyes and recognize that the health of our citizens is dependent on the health of others far away. If they understand this and refuse to ignore distant troubles, young Americans have the opportunity to become the global leaders our world so desperately needs.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.