The Politics Of Fear And Ebola In America

I tuned into my local news last night, and as you might guess, Ebola dominated the broadcast. And maybe that would be acceptable if this coverage, using title graphics like “Ebola Outbreak,” and “Ebola Crisis,” was centered in West Africa. Nope.

On Action News (6ABC) in Philadelphia, they have “team coverage” spread out around the country, this country, the United States of America. So, those scare tactic graphics were not targeted at the place on this planet where they might actually offer a more accurate (but still fear-based) portrayal of events. Instead, the local news team would like us to believe we have an Ebola outbreak and a crisis in the United States. No, we do not.

It borders on criminal for a “news” broadcast to present “information” in such a way as to amp up public alarm for the sake of ratings. And make no mistake, that is the reason why any news broadcast flashes graphics like the ones above, and offers over-the-top coverage of a relatively minor event. And yes, Ebola is scary, and yes, Texas Health Presbyterian made many mistakes, and yes, the CDC has bungled the response so far, but it is still a minor event in this country. And its fine to cover those aspects of the story. We should know that the response to Ebola in the U.S. has not gone smoothly, and that means we should hold public officials accountable. But what we don’t need to do is use the errors in protocol as the basis for presenting the public with a reason to panic, ensuring they will continue to “tune in” to see the latest flashy and misleading title graphic.

Unfortunately the foolishness does not end with the local and national news broadcasts. We have uninformed members of congress calling for a travel ban from the countries most greatly affected by Ebola. As expected, most of the representatives calling for a travel ban are Republicans, but since they tend to be spineless, an increasing number of Democrats are also calling for such a ban. And these ignorant members of congress are backed up by an equally uninformed American public, with a Washington Post poll showing 67% of Americans would like to “bar entry to people who’ve been in Ebola stricken countries.” I’m glad our elected leaders think we should react to virus containment situations at the whim of public opinion.

And exemplifying this inanity is an exchange that happened on “Morning Joe” on Friday when Representative Dennis Ross (R-FL) attempted to defend his planned legislation to restrict flights from those Ebola stricken countries. Rep. Ross had his ass handed to him when Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked him, “Just to clarify, what flights are you talking about? Because there are not regularly scheduled commercial flights from the affected countries to the United States.” Someone else on the show in the background even corrects Robinson by saying there are no direct flights at all from these countries. What was Rep. Ross’s response? He said, “I believe there are some flights, but be that as it may, people who travel…” Then of course he was cut off, and corrected again, that there are no direct flights that come from West Africa. That’s when Ross got a bit terse in his response saying sarcastically, “Then we don’t have any problem, everybody’s contained, correct?”

It’s not Ebola in the U.S. that is scary, it’s elected officials like Ross, equally as uninformed as the public, but nonetheless leading the charge on restrictive legislation, a bill that would restrict freedom, based on lack of knowledge and fear. And when called out, Rep. Ross gets testy and defensive. You want something to fear? I offer you Rep. Ross. You should fear a person like Ross in elected office just enough to get up off your ass, and head to the voting booth on election day. But instead, most Americas will choose to sit at home, flip on the TV, and see the latest scare tactic graphics the local news broadcast can dream up.

The reason I confidently proclaim Representative Ross and 67% of Americans are uninformed is because we actually have health experts willing to offer their educated advice on whether a travel ban will help contain Ebola. And as it turns out, it will not.

This knee-jerk response is yet another in a long string of Republican-led attempts to steer a story in the direction of conservative reactionary politics. In the world of conservative reflex, a solution to a problem need only make sense on the surface. One does not need to think more than a brief moment, for thinking longer than that can produce an undesirable result, an answer that might conflict with the pre-existing narrative. And what do Democrats do in response? They kowtow to public opinion largely formed by the disinformation campaign waged by their Republican friends.

But as I said, it turns out a travel ban would not produce the desired result, regardless of how many Americans “think” that it will.

A ban on travel from West Africa might seem like a simple and smart response to the frightening Ebola outbreak there. It’s become a central demand of Republicans on Capitol Hill and some Democrats, and is popular with the public. But health experts are nearly unanimous in saying it’s a bad idea that could backfire.

The experts’ key objection is that a travel ban could prevent needed medical supplies, food and health care workers from reaching Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the nations where the epidemic is at its worst. Without that aid, the deadly virus might spread to wider areas of Africa, making it even more of a threat to the U.S. and the world, experts say.

In addition, preventing people from the affected countries from traveling to the U.S. could be difficult to enforce and might generate counterproductive results, such as people lying about their travel history or attempting to evade screening.

But let’s go with the knee-jerk response instead.

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