With the West African Ebola epidemic still raging out of control, killing 20 people a day in Sierra Leone alone, Americans, confronted with their first few cases, are taking on the tough questions: Can Ebola be transmitted by a bowling ball? What about co-location in a hipster coffee bar near the High Line? And—OMG—what about Uber-based transmission?
Right on cue, as if in an attempt to push the discussion ever further toward irrelevancy, the twin towers of presidential posturing, Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, agreed to hog the spotlight together in order to get presidentially tough over an issue that needed no decisiveness at all: What to do about the small trickle of health-care volunteers who return to the States from West Africa? Tired, apparently, of all the goddamned evidenced-based pussy-footing coming from people who understand science and public health, the Two Big Guys made their kick-butt pronouncement: They are throwing those weenie volunteers into the 21-day slammer, no ifs or ands or buts. Goddammit.
With this they are further tarring the poor schmuck who is fighting off a life-threatening infection: Dr. Craig Spencer. Remember him? Remember 55 percent death rates from Ebola? Yet Spencer’s current predicament has taken a distant back seat to the pressing worries of 8 million people who are at zero risk but appear to want to feel threatened. It is an odd inversion—dumping on a guy who is sick and at real risk for death and maybe a little heroic (after all, he chose to go to Guinea to help the dying, chaotic masses) and focusing instead on his “selfish disregard for the public” as he traipsed across the subway system to access the cultured and well-turned-out parallel world of Brooklyn and its contents.
I don’t know Spencer, but my only beef with him is that he opted to go bowling—meaning he either likes bowling, which is inconceivable, or he “likes” bowling, i.e., he is edging along the gentle ironies of the early-30s New York life, bowling and macaroni and too-skinny pants, passions that start out in passionate jest yet become anchored and beloved, the supercilious eyebrow shake lost in the shuffle as comfort turns out to be, well, comfortable. No matter what one thinks of him personally, though, clearly he is a victim here and not a villain.
Admittedly, the Governators are addressing a real concern: the cost of managing the seemingly inevitable panic that accompanies the mere mention of Ebola. Though not necessary, public-health workers in New York City are busy right this second making phone calls to people who might have been on a subway, in a diner, at the bowling alley, spending substantial time (and therefore tax dollars) all in the name of panic, not disease, control. So surely there is a cost-saving argument to be made in this sort of nip-’em-in-the-bud quarantine first, ask questions later approach.
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