Ebola: How Quickly We Forget

FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2014, file photo, Nine-year-old Nowa Paye is taken to an ambulance after showing signs of the Ebola
FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2014, file photo, Nine-year-old Nowa Paye is taken to an ambulance after showing signs of the Ebola infection in the village of Freeman Reserve, about 30 miles north of Monrovia, Liberia. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

As we begin a new year, we often discard the less important memories of the preceding year, but some events should never be forgotten. Remember Ebola? Faded from our collective memory, has it? Probably so, but barely two months have passed since Dr. Craig Spencer was released from a New York hospital on November 11, 2014.

Since Spencer's release, the number of Ebola cases in the United States has remained at zero and Ebola hysteria has all but evaporated.

But October 2014 was an entirely different story. After the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas released Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan home with a raging fever and a missed diagnosis of Ebola, and after two nurses who took care of Duncan after his subsequent admission to the same hospital became infected with Ebola, the United States entered a period of shrill, full-throttle hysteria and moral panic reminiscent of the early period of the AIDS epidemic. An October Harvard poll found a little over half of Americans feared there would be a large outbreak of Ebola in the United States, and more than a third worried that they or someone in their immediate family would "get" Ebola. To put this into perspective, the number of United States cases in October was -- count them -- eight, with one death, while the corresponding figure in the Ebola affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was by then around 10 thousand reported cases with almost 4,000 deaths.

All over the country, Americans had extreme reactions to a danger that did not exist. Hundreds of Mississippi parents removed their children from school because the principal had visited Zambia, at least 3,000 miles from the Ebola-affected countries.

With the politicization of the disease outbreak, Marco Rubio planned to introduce legislature that would ban flights from affected countries, an impracticable measure that might even jeopardize the monitoring of Ebola virus disease into the country. Other Republicans and some Democrats backed this measure, and a White House petition demanded the flight ban as well. But President Obama held fast: there would be no flight bans, but there would be stepped-up screening. Even Gov. Rick Perry, to his credit, agreed with the president on this one.

Despite evidence to the contrary, there was a pervading fear that somehow Ebola could spread through the air the same way influenza or the measles can. Meanwhile, in a display of how one can throw one's weight around and end up looking like a buffoon, Gov. Chris Christie forcibly quarantined Kaci Hickox, an asymptomatic nurse who had been treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, later releasing her.

Then, quite quickly, the hysteria ended, and so did the breathless news reports. No more Ebola in the United States, so no more problem. But before we settle down into our normal resting state of parochial bliss, let us remember that Ebola has not ended for the most heavily affected West African countries. The world was slow to respond to Ebola, and the outbreak is far from being over. As of December 31, 2014, there are 20,206 reported cases and almost 8,000 deaths. Reported case incidence is fluctuating in Guinea, where the outbreak began. In Liberia, incidence is decreasing, although more cases were reported in the week ending December 28 than in the previous week. There are signs that the increase in incidence has slowed in Sierra Leone, but the west of the country is still experiencing the most intense transmission of all affected countries.

Let us also not forget Ebola has devastated the economies of countries that are least equipped to recover, and that thousands of children have been orphaned by Ebola.

Let us not forget that for months, we looked away from the Ebola epidemic and only cared when we thought the United States was about to be engulfed by it; and that we demonstrated one standard for white American healthcare workers and a lesser one for their West African counterparts.

Mark Twain reportedly said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Other pandemics are waiting in the wings. Regrettably, we will very likely behave the same way as we have done with Ebola. We will probably miss the rhyme.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Kwei Quartey M.D. is a crime novelist and physician who grew up in Ghana. He is now based in Los Angeles. His fourth novel, Gold of the Fathers, will be published in February 2016. He is working on his fifth, Death by His Grace. Follow him at @Kwei_Quartey.