The one burning question that has been on nearly every one's lips in the U.S. is not "Could the Ebola virus strike the U.S.?" But "What happens if it does strike the U.S.?" There was a partial answer to that question when the first confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola turned up in Dallas. The alarm bells that rang faintly among Americans now sounded louder. The Centers for Disease Control, legions of medical experts, and state and local officials have rushed to assure that the virus poses minimal to no threat to Americans.
The reasons for this are sound. The virus does not have the same instant contact contagion as the flu. The U.S. has an iron clad system for the monitoring and containment of all passengers from West Africa where the virus has ravaged several of these countries. And this is not West Africa with its relatively poor sanitation, paltry medical resources, and bulging shanty towns that are virtual human incubators for the spread of an Ebola viral infection. Yet despite the official reassurances, millions of Americans aren't totally buying the guarantee of safety. To be more specific, Harvard researchers in a poll found that more than 40 percent of Americans not only think that Ebola is a threat to their health, but believe it's a matter of not if, but when, it will strike, and how hard, and widespread the contagion will be.
President Obama can hardly be called a panic-monger in warning about the disease. But his note that Ebola represents not just a potential health catastrophe but has "profound political and economic and security implications for all of us" was a crucial warning. The emphasis here on is on his "all of us." The unmistakable message in this is that Americans are by no means immune from the panic, fear, insecurity, and potential destabilization that comes with the outbreak of a terrifying disease in what to many may seem like a remote part of the world. He's right to sound that alarm for the very reason that even those that make assurances that it can't happen here acknowledge.
This is not 1940, or 1950 when the world was a much smaller place. West Africa then was remote, removed, and then still brutally dominated by colonial powers. Americans were totally insulated from the poverty, turmoil, and, yes, diseases that routinely killed thousands of Africans. There was a cultural and racial smugness that went with America's isolation, in that Africa and Africans were regarded as exotic and the ancient vicious racial stereotypes about their alleged backwardness, primitiveness, and savagery still laced the thinking today of many Americans. This thinking is still very much prevalent among many Americans about Africa. But this is not 1950. The ease and accessibility of global travel, the non-stop mobility of travelers and immigrants, and the quantum leap in interpersonal contacts between peoples across all ethnic lines in America have radically changed the social, cultural and health equation.
Those who work on the medical frontlines in the countries where Ebola has reached epidemic levels are the ones who are most susceptible to contracting the virus since they are in constant contact not only with those that are infected with the virus but their family members that have cared for their sick relatives. The danger to the U.S. from them was dramatically driven home, literally, when two medical workers in Liberia were rushed back here for treatment. They had contracted the virus. Their story made news not just because they were the first known Americans hit with the virus, But because they were treated with an experimental serum. This instantly set off loud protests and shouts of racism, and indifference, and outright turning our back on Africans who are dying from the disease. But their treatment also brought to light another terrifying reality.
There is no known cure for the virus once contracted. At best, there's only an experimental drug, the shows promise that was developed by the U.S. Army's specialized bio laboratory. But the drug has not been tested in humans as yet. Compounding the problem, Ebola does not comprise a single strain but five strains. Four of which can be transmitted to humans.
So we're still at square one in the search to find an effective treatment. The brutal history of communicable diseases is that it only takes one person to contract such a disease for it to pose an instant health problem to the general public. Health officials have said they are on high alert to catch and isolate anyone with active symptoms of the disease. With the flow of thousands of travelers and others into the U.S. daily, the vigilance is more than necessary. Despite the best efforts of American officials, the many medical and social ills of the world are no longer somebody somewhere else's problem but others as well. Ebola is no exception.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.