It is autumn 2014 and I am following the media coverage of Ebola. The coverage is typical, newsreaders report with indignation that governments and health providers in the West appear to be completely unprepared for Ebola. The reporting appears to me to be more focused on the small number of cases of Ebola in the western countries and less on the real tragedy, which is occurring in West Africa. Then, where is the media’s audience, not West Africa I guess.
The media reports that experts say that the screening being implemented at airports and train stations is a waste of effort and money. The resources would be better spent dealing with the virus in West Africa. Surely, the media and the experts must know that the authorities know this. However, Homeland screening is more about responding to the concerns of politicians’ constituencies and has little to do with science. Whenever infectious disease events threaten, public support for screening at airports or train stations is usually high. During the SARS outbreak 2003 the same screening debate took place and governments went ahead and implemented screening in several jurisdictions. In Canada in 2003 — where there were 438 probable SARS cases, including 44 deaths,— airports in Toronto and Vancouver used thermal scanners to take some 2.4 million people’s temperatures that year. Canada’s public health agency reported in a paper assessing lessons learned from the epidemic that while 832 travelers were referred for further testing following the initial screening, not one of them had SARS.
Ebola is a terrible virus, which at the time of writing had reached plague proportions in West Africa. At this point in time more than ten thousand West Africans have been infected and almost half have died. This is not the first Ebola event in West Africa but it appears to be the worst so far. The reasons Ebola has such a death grip on West Africa are abundant. Principal reasons include the lack of health care infrastructure, both physical and human, a poverty stricken population with low education and thus suspicious of government intrusions, and weak government institutions. Also discussed more openly is the lack of action in the early stages of the outbreak by the Europeans, Americans and Canadians.
Media reports have raised race and poverty as possible reasons for the lack of action by the West early in the outbreak. Media commentators ask if the population affected were “rich white people” instead of “poor black people” more would have been done. I am not convinced that is the case. I think people in the West would have reacted much the same even if it were “rich white people” affected. However, the “rich white people” must be far away, on another continent preferably. This would ensure that it was not happening to them, their relatives or their friends. Their experience of the crisis must only be viewable on TV or in social media chat forums. As long as they could continue to go to work on public transit, eat lunch at their favourite restaurant and visit with their family and friends after work their awareness of Ebola would remain superficial. They could even watch the news about the terrible virus that was affecting “rich white people” in a faraway place without becoming concerned. Their government leaders would reassure them from time to time, “not to worry, it won’t happen here.” Alternatively, “The risk is extremely low, it may happen to someone here, but not many, and not you.” This is an expected reaction.