Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head. It scared her so much she trembled all over. She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out. "Help! Help!" she cried. "The sky is falling! I have to go tell the king!"
And run to tell the king the sky was falling Chicken Little did, gathering an equally terrified gaggle trailing wildly in her wake.
When the Ebola epidemic crashed into the American consciousness you could fit what most of us knew about the disease into the acorn that bonked Chicken Little: Contagious. Incurable. Deadly. African.
Maybe, that people got it from eating monkeys and bats from the jungle and then spread it though contact with contaminated body fluids. Maybe that it occurred from time to time in isolated villages in West Africa, decimating those villages but otherwise generally containable.
The bonk was just that, news of an exotic deadly disease in a faraway set of countries. Until the first case of Ebola arrived in the United States on August 2 in the spectral vision of an infected American doctor in white protective gear being evacuated from Liberia, it was given little news coverage. Since then, too much of what we have heard about it echoes Chicken Little.
Ebola is coming! Ebola is coming!
Even for those of us who thought we paid attention, that Ebola had jumped from its usual haunts across the continent to three extremely poor countries of west Africa -- Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia -- came as a jolt. By then it had already become a rapidly spreading epidemic.
Sierra Leone is one of our Foreign Service family's "countries." We lived in Freetown for two years, now nearly 40 years ago. News of the epidemic is heartbreaking and personal. Kenema, location of the isolation hospital mentioned in the first news stories about the epidemic, is five hours down a bumpy mainly dirt road south east of the capital. The disease had already taken several of its brave, leading health professionals who had been caring for the increasing number of Ebola patients. The Kenema that has appeared on TV looks like the ramshackle place I remember: low, tin roofed, roads muddy from the seasonal rains, women in bright wrappers still carrying water at least from the stand-pipe if not from a river.
That isolation hospital had its inception while we were stationed in Sierra Leone as the result of an outbreak of Lassa fever -- a viral hemorrhagic fever related to Ebola, but initially found near a town in Nigeria (near where we were also stationed a decade earlier). CDC sent a team to study the outbreak and, more importantly, to see if they could isolate its virus. Based in Kenema, they were drawing blood samples, packing them in dry ice and driving them to Freetown. Flights connecting to the States didn't go daily. The samples needed to be kept cold. So, until they could be flown out, they stayed in our second refrigerator. While the disease was concerning, living with live-virus samples in the refrigerator was just one of those things we did.
Health care and sanitation in Sierra Leone were basic at best. It sounds as if while the roads are much better there has been little improvement in available medical facilities. Water was not potable. Boiling drinking and cooking water was a daily household chore; a bottle sat by each bathroom sink for brushing teeth. Malaria was endemic. So were intestinal parasites. One baby in five died before the age of five, mainly from readily curable diseases like diarrhea and measles. Freetown had hospitals, but with limited facilities. When a visiting friend required an emergency appendectomy, the Sierra Leonean surgeon was London trained and excellent; the operation went well. But we took her home the next morning because, as he said: "You can keep her cleaner and less likely to have post operative infections than we can in the hospital." Some of the larger towns had simple hospitals, but many small towns and villages had the most basic of clinics. Even in cities, people relied as often on traditional healers.
I am haunted by the looks and voices of fear on people's faces there and in Liberia that appear on TV. A man's voice speaking rhythmic Krio still rings in my ears: "I am the last in my family." As I was commiserating with the pharmacist's assistant at our drug store the other day, she reported: "My folks in Freetown are well. They are petrified and rarely go out ... afraid to even go to the market, which makes getting food difficult."
With the arrival of the first stricken evacuee, the tone of reporting here changed. Suddenly Ebola wasn't merely some terrible epidemic ravaging distant countries in Africa. It was here. Even when the facts they were reporting about the disease and its transmission were accurate, most newscasters used anxiety-causing 'it's here and dangerous, when will we have the epidemic?' voices. The second case of patient-to-caregiver transmission in Dallas has raised the national anxiety level further. Combine this with the advent of the flu season with its airborne, easily transmitted aches and fevers, increasing the possibility of thinking one has fluid-transmitted Ebola when a fever is actually flu.
To be clear: Ebola is serious. The exponentially increasing infection rate in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are a medical disaster that demands immediate, focused action to contain. As a nation and as individuals we need to take it extremely seriously. The arrival in the United States is worrying, but with wise action, containable. The disease can only be gotten by close contact with someone with active symptoms of the disease or things that have been contaminated with their body fluids, and has an incubation period of 21 days.
Hysterical fear mongering is not the way to contain the epidemic in Africa or stop it from spreading there or here, yet we have too much of that both from the media and from politicians.
The sky has fallen! Ebola is here! Ebola is here!
When the news broke, it wasn't that we weren't already ricocheting from crisis to crisis with 24-7 TV coverage and analysis in crisis-ridden voices and consequently feeling increasingly off kilter:
In the late spring, the surge of mostly unaccompanied children fleeing threats of gang violence and rape from Central America surging across the border with Mexico. Then the crisis in Ukraine broke out in Crimea, raising political tensions with Russia.
Followed by yet another young black man killed by a white policeman, terrible enough in and of itself, compounded with images night after night of the Ferguson, Missouri, police looking like an invading army as they faced down mostly peaceful protesters.
And almost immediately after that, the sudden rampage of ISIS out of Syria across Iraq. With the United States responding by bombing but swearing there would be "no American boots on the ground." Compounded by all too explicit images of one American hostage in an orange suit after another being beheaded by a masked black clad ISIS warrior.
All of this took place in an environment of worrying slow but steady economic recovery that has helped the wealthiest but left far too many people still lurching from payday to payday.
Topped off by a Congress that won't have serious discussions about critical national issues, hurling blame instead while going on another vacation to campaign for reelection.
And now, with many Americans understandably fearful, and some bordering on panic, totally irresponsible politicians and other bloviators are conflating ISIS, the Mexican border and Ebola in unfounded and dangerous ways.
The sky is falling. Be afraid. Be very afraid. ISIS is coming! Ebola is coming! Be very afraid!
Senator Pat Roberts (R. Kan.) locked in a tight race for reelection is only one of many candidates to play this fear card: "We have ISIS, we have Ebola -- we have to secure the border." Scott Brown running in New Hampshire, Thom Thillis in North Carolina and Tom Cotton in in Arkansas have made similar comments.
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has his own Fox TV show, declaimed: "We've seen our borders routinely ignored. So if someone with Ebola really wants to come to the U.S., just get to Mexico and walk right in."
Most scurrilous of all are those fear mongers who yet again blame it all on "President Ebola." They rail because he focuses on Africa (where the epidemic is rampant and thus needs to be the center of efforts to stop it) because of his "heritage" instead of "taking care of our own borders."
Throughout most of my 80 years, I have rarely been so disgusted. In my book, politicians who talk this way are not what our nation needs as we face serious problems that require thoughtful solutions. They are demonstrating they are unqualified and should not be elected. Politicians with their heads fixated on their reelection polling numbers and their commentator supporters running in circles and, like Chicken Little, crying "The sky is falling" are hazardous.
Time to tune them out and get on with tackling Ebola where it lives. This requires clear heads, open eyes, a sense of urgency, willingness to commit significant resources and stay the course. There are no short cuts. The Chicken Littles and their ilk have already squawked too much. The sky is not falling.