I never like to start with a reference to Facebook, but the events of the past week make it impossible. Unless you live on a different planet or don’t have a Facebook (isn’t that the same thing?), your newsfeed predictably contains a few things: that HONY picture that says something inspiring, a video of a small, adorable animal and something about Ebola. These are all good things to look at while “paying attention” in lecture, especially the last one. Since the outbreak of Ebola in March of this year, one of the largest hurdles faced by those responding to the emergency has been attracting enough attention. That all changed in August. Now, even students not on Science Hill or at the Medical School are talking about Ebola. This is great news.
Until, that is, all of our Ebola talk devolves into fear and misinformation. Fear, in and of itself, does not have to be a bad thing: Fear of bodily injury causes us to slow down on I-95, fear of food poisoning causes us to throw away that moldy, month-old salmon and fear of that 9 a.m. section causes us to drink less at Toad’s the night before (or, maybe more). Fear is natural. The difference between those fears and this “Ebola fear” rampaging through the online and physical worlds is that many seem unable to contextualize this fear with rationality and other more productive responses.
We must reexamine the University’s fear-driven decision to discourage travel to West Africa, when our help is needed most. Moreover, we see these same misplaced ideas originating both in Congress and on our Facebook newsfeeds.
And it’s not just Ebola. Our response to pandemics in general — SARS, avian influenza, MERS and now Ebola — is predictably terrible. Instead of approaching these outbreaks with rational decision-making, we succumb to the more visceral emotion of panic. That would be okay if it were the kind of panic that were productive, or led to an effective, lasting response. The problem is that we panic, forget and start back from square one during the next crisis.
We cannot respond to Ebola, or any future outbreak, intoxicated with fear. Instead, we must turn our attention to tackling this problem with the best available information. We must not retreat into isolation out of fear, but instead step up and redouble our efforts to defeat Ebola not only here at home, but also overseas. We must support all those — especially those in our community — who embody the best of Yale and of humanity by serving selflessly in times of need.
Instead of engaging in gratuitous fear-mongering, we should devote those energies to figuring out how we can get help where it is needed most. We, as a university, must encourage more of our qualified physicians, engineers, biostatisticians and epidemiologists to offer assistance in the fight against Ebola. We, as a nation, must follow through on pledges of not only infrastructure, but also personnel needed to combat Ebola. We, as an international community, must provide assurances to those volunteers traveling to West Africa that we will medevac these workers back home should they fall ill. And we, as individuals, must temper our fear with sober reason.
And we must not forget. We must maintain this sense of urgency as we set about creating an international mechanism to respond to future pandemics. We must also turn a critical eye on our own research and development system and examine why there were inadequate incentives to bring about an effective cure for not only Ebola, but also many other worldwide killers. Instead of waiting for the next global health threat and reacting, we must make sure we are proactive in a way that protects not only Americans, but all citizens.
So, read voraciously about Ebola and all other public health issues. Push for solutions to this outbreak and future ones. Demand that your university and government encourage those sorely needed trained personnel to sign up to defeat this outbreak. Now, more than ever, is not the time to retreat behind porous borders. We have the resources necessary to defeat this illness. Instead of making it more difficult for help to get where it is needed, we must remove these barriers which are constructed largely out of fear. We must reject the paralysis of hysteria in favor of a renewed commitment to service.
Isaac Wasserman is a 2014 graduate of Timothy Dwight College and a student at the School of Public Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.