|Power point Ebola warning mounted in a Mali airport|
Besides, the horrific Ebola virus hot spots were war zones not all that far removed from Ghana and Mali and Niger, three countries on our itinerary. "Yes, we're going to west Africa," we told people. They'd respond with a half smile maybe, half grimace. "No kidding," they'd say, and a minute later, "You're serious?--really?"
Now don't get me wrong. Medical professional companions or not, I didn't waltz through African customs as if my American heritage carried superpower immunity.
That there was a crisis not all that far away was perfectly clear all over west Africa. Precautions were taken. Every airport greeted its incoming with a team of nurses, sometimes in masks, who pointed temperature guns at our heads to determine whether or not we were feverish.
The walls on all the gates were thick with posters displaying the suspect symptoms--stick figures experiencing blowouts from both ends, drawings far too graphic for public consumption in America, where, oddly enough, there would almost always be far more skin on display than you'll see in any African airport.
Once, we were lined up and ushered past a monitor. "Look here," the nurses said, and pointed at a fish-eye camera that brought the image on the screen in front of the nurse--and in front of us. Some kind of infra-red technology put an apple-like shine to our faces, which, if too bright, I suppose, would mean a trip to the doctor on call.
Ebola, as just about everyone in the world knows by now, is not an airborne virus. It can only be spread--and it can and does spread alarmingly quickly--by contact with bodily fluids. Clean up a victim's mess or just touch him without precautions, and you could be in trouble, in danger, as we've all been told. Experts claim that if medical professionals don't get the disease under control in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those countries, soon, could lose 10,000 victims a week.
Ebola is the worst mass murderer the world has seen in a while, which explains the extremes some people have taken in the U.S.: a middle school shuts down because an administrator had traveled to and from Tanzania, where no cases of the Ebola virus have even been recorded. There are other such horror stories as well.
I came back from west Africa a week ago, turned on TV news, and couldn't believe my eyes when the network interrupted normal programming to show us a nurse who'd contacted the virus, one of only two cases in the U.S.A., at the moment she was walked, dressed like an astronaut, from an ambulance into a Atlanta hospital. The whole country was watching! You'd have thought she was OJ.
What C. S. Lewis had to say about Satan, the Devil, always struck me as being solidly to the point. Honestly, I don't know where to find the quote, and I didn't dig it up myself. I'm only repeating what I've been told. But what he said went something like this. When it comes to the Devil, we frequently make two mistakes: we can far too easily underestimate him and far too easily overestimate him.
Somewhere there's balance. Somewhere there's reason. An old proverb, German, I think, says that fear always makes the wolf bigger than it is. It's almost November, too, when fear makes it so easy to create political capital.
In this morning's NY Times, Nick Kristof quotes Paul Farmer (anyone who's read Mountains Beyond Mountains has to listen) as saying: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours [Partners in Health] — and worsen the epidemic.”
When we walked through customs at New York's JFK Airport, no team of nurses or med techs were standing there with fever guns checking. As of this morning, there still has been only two cases of Ebola in this country, both of them in nurses who'd cared for the only man or woman to die here of the virus.
The rhetoric was inflamed last week, to say the least. Thank God, things are calming down.
Here, at least.