Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ebola Fever

When I left work on September 11, 2001 there were long lines at the gas station in Ottawa. Cars clogged the drive of the Clark Station on Jefferson, and Conroy’s up by Route 80. I stopped by Kroger, not in reaction to the death and destruction in New York but because we were out of eggs. The aisles were jammed with shoppers buying canned goods, bread, and milk. I’d never seen it, the type of group fear that human beings exhibit when they sense danger, but there it was. Bad things had happened in the homeland, every airplane in the nation was grounded, the future was uncertain, and America was hunkering down.

Hunkering down for good reason. 2,996 people died that day at the hands of foreign terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon with commercial airplanes loaded with passengers. We knew in our gut that America would soon be at war somewhere in the world. We panicked. Everything changed, but most importantly both our sense of security and our view of the world were wholly different after that day. It’s hard to remember the relative innocence of pre 9-11 America, but it’s safe to say we have never been the same.

Something similar and yet entirely different has happened during the past week.

The parents of children attending the public middle school in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, a town of 4,000 people about 30 miles South of Jackson on Interstate 55, mobbed the school, demanding their children be released to their custody. This was reportedly fueled by Face Book posts that Principal Lee Wannik had recently returned from Africa after attending the funeral of his brother (true) and that he was either infected with Ebola or exposed to someone infected (false). Video of the incident shot by Channel 16 WAFT out of Jackson shows a hall full of angry parents being directed to the cafeteria to sign forms to take their children out of school. Mr. Wannik recently returned from the African country of Zambia, a country not part of the recent outbreak. No cases of Ebola have been reported to exist in Zambia and it is very, very far from the African countries being monitored by authorities.

I watched a very calm middle school superintendent, John Sullivan, explain on the news clip that Principal Wannik traveled to Zambia to attend the funeral of his brother and, after realizing the concern (think hysteria) present among parents, voluntarily chose to stay at home for a period of time “so that he would not be a distraction to the educational process.”

I don’t know how these things work, having not been forced to deal with large groups of irrational people often (thank you god) but I wonder if Superintendent Sullivan, having an audience of parents in the cafeteria, might have seized it as a teaching moment and talked to them about the facts of the situation. The talk might have gone like this.

“Folks if I could just have your attention for a few moments I’d like to give you some information. I know you have come to take your children home out of a concern for their safety, and that is your right, but before you do if you would just give me a few moments of your time.

"We have all heard of Ebola and we both know it is a terrible disease that we want to avoid at any cost. However, I would like to offer a few facts for you to consider. First, Mr. Wannik is fine. I was with him this morning. Aside from just having lost his brother he is healthy and fit. He feels well and is not sick. He is most likely the same as when you saw him last.”
“Mr. Wannik’s former home, where many of his family still live, is in the African country of Zambia. That is the only country he visited while he was in Africa. He flew to Zambia and he flew home. Zambia is in the southern portion of the large continent of Africa.”

“If you think of Africa as being in the shape of a hatchet Zambia is where you might grab the hatchet by its handle. The countries the world is concerned about, which are experiencing the current outbreak of the Ebola virus are Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. They are located on the blade of the hatchet in the North Central and Western portion of Africa. My staff prepared a map which we’ll project on the wall for you. There. Outlined in red are the countries just mentioned. Way over here, in blue, is Zambia. The distance between the closest country experiencing the Ebola outbreak, Liberia, and Zambia where Mr. Wannik attended his brother’s funeral, is 2,897 miles. Let me repeat that. 2,897 miles.”

“I tried to find some place that far away so I could better appreciate that distance. In choosing an example of a how far Zambia is from the affected Ebola area of Africa I searched for a city or an area of the world that is the same distance from where we are now in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. It wasn’t easy. No part of the United States is that far away from us. In fact, if you took a string that represented that distance to scale and swung it around a tack in a map stuck in Hazelhurst it would extend North to mostly arctic parts of Canada where no towns exist. And then of course you have the oceans to the East and West. So I extended that string to the South, using a computer program called “As the Crow Flies” and there is a point South of us that is just about the same distance from Hazelhurst as Zambia is from Liberia. That point is, could we have the next slide please? That point is Iquitos, Peru in the Amazon basin. I think that visual, for me at least, of a town far away in South America gives me a better idea of how far Mr. Wannik was from the dangers of the Ebola virus during his trip to Africa.”

“Just as many of us have never ventured so far away as to be in Iquitos, Peru, South America so the people of Zambia rarely if ever travel so far as to be in contact with people in the Ebola affected countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and vice versa. In fact, given the widespread poverty that exists in those nations, few people have the means or the opportunity to travel around the continent at all. They largely stay at home. There have in fact been no cases of Ebola reported in Zambia. Let me say that again. There have been no cases of Ebola virus reported in Zambia, the only country Mr. Wannik visited, and Zambia is over 2,800 miles from the problem area of Africa.”

“So I repeat, Mr. Wannik is fine and he assures me, and you, that he was not in contact with anyone who was ill with the Ebola disease. And so he believes, as I believe, that your children, their teachers, and you are safe at Halzelhurst Middle School in his presence. As your superintendent I urge you not to remove your children from their school. You have the right to do so if you choose, but I hope you choose to leave your kids in school so we can do our job of teaching them. In fact, by leaving them here you set an example for your kids of choosing reason over fear. Thanks for your time.”

Would that have made a difference? I’m not sure. By the looks of the crowd on the video maybe not. Some parents even removed their children from the high school, a separate building removed from the middle school where Mr. Wannik worked. It would be fair to say what Hazelhurst experienced was community wide panic, fueled by Face Book and social media rumor. If you view the video, you can see that parents were indignant when asked by reporters why they were removing their children from school saying “I would rather be safe than sorry” or “you can’t be too careful” or “because I want to.” Refreshingly, one Dad, when posed the question ‘Why are you taking your children out of school’ tried to respond and in the end admitted ‘I don’t really know why.’ Clearly a factor was that everyone else was doing so. I know we get emotional about our kids, but I like to think we can also be reasonable given objective fact.

Maybe Mr. Wannik and Mr. Sullivan had a short meeting where they weighed the phone calls received, the anger, the apparent fear and decided between them and the school board ‘let the parents do what they want, and you get the hell out of here.’ In the end Mr. Wannik took voluntary paid leave and went home for an undisclosed period of time. But when we make decisions that give in to fear, when we fold up in the face of ignorance and misinformation don’t we just reinforce and reward wrong thinking? That’s the kind of thinking that negatively stigmatizes others, justifies hate, and condones extreme behavior. It is us at our worst.

The United States has had one death attributed to Ebola in America. One. We have an extensive health care system. We have news and communication resources that will alert us immediately to real danger, and we have the attention of the entire nation including the U.S. government. We’ve got this. Let’s all back up a step and chill.

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