The Irrational Fear of Ebola: Good Samaritans Under Indictment
By Theodore T. Hodge
They say timing is everything. Kaci Hickox, a nurse returned home at the wrong time after serving a voluntary stint with the organization 'Doctors Without Borders' and landed into a hornets' nest in Newark, New Jersey. Instead of being welcome back home after demonstrating the American spirit of volunteerism, she has been treated like a criminal and outcast. Her crime? Serving in the Ebola hot zone of West Africa, Sierra Leone, to be exact.
The states of New Jersey and New York have instituted a mandatory quarantine after a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, tested positive for Ebola after returning from Guinea where he had worked with Doctors Without Borders. The plan for a mandatory quarantine has been criticized for being hastily instituted. According to a New York Times article, "Federal officials made it clear that they do not agree with the governors about the need or effectiveness of a total quarantine for health care workers."
A New York City official complained that the "Entire city was not informed, even the mayor's office. The mayor was caught unaware." The official said further, "The big picture decision was made in the absence of deep thinking about what implementing the policy would entail."
Meantime, according to the New York Times article, "The Obama administration has been pushing the governors of New York and New Jersey to reverse their decision ordering all medical workers returning from West Africa who had contact with Ebola patients to be quarantined."
It is becoming quite obvious a rift is developing as far as the policy concerning the fight against the Ebola virus goes. A hasty decision was made by two governors without any consultation with city officials or officials at the federal level. I agree with the official who said, "The big picture decision was made in the absence of deep thinking..." Some experts have warned us repeatedly that with the epidemic of Ebola comes another epidemic: The epidemic of fear. This is becoming quite apparent by this hasty and clumsy decision by these two governors.
The first victim caught in the middle of this developing fiasco is a nurse who has so far tested negative but has been ordered to undergo a mandatory quarantine for twenty-one days. The nurse, Ms. Kaci Hickox, has let it be known that her rights are being violated by being subject to go through such demeaning treatment. She has planned to mount a legal challenge to the quarantine order. She has described her treatment as "inhumane".
Again according to the same article, "She (the nurse) described being held in isolation for about seven hours at Newark Liberty International on Friday, left alone for long stretches and given only a granola bar when she said she was hungry." It is my opinion that the word "inhumane" is an understatement. Imagine returning home from a battle-field where you gave your best in the name of humanity, only to become an outcast and treated with such indignity.
But despite what has been said about this nurse, she is lucky she is an American citizen. She is entitled to certain rights and those rights cannot simply be abused without consequences. She has said about New Jersey Governor Christie, "The first thing I want him to know is that I wish he would be careful about his statements about my medical condition..." She retained a well-known civil-rights lawyer who said the order "raised substantial civil liberties issues." He continued, "The policy infringes on Kaci Hickox' constitutional liberty interests. The policy is overly broad as applied to Ms. Hickox and we are preparing to challenge it on her behalf."
Again I say Ms. Hickox is lucky she is entitled to certain rights for which she can fight in America. But what happens to someone who happens to be a Liberian, a Sierra Leonean, a Guinean, or any African for that matter, who finds himself at an airport in New Jersey or New York and subject to the kind of harsh and foolish treatment described herein? Is that person going to be written about in the New York Times? Is CNN going to do an interview and present a sympathetic angle? Is a famous civil rights lawyer going to come to his or her aid? My fear is the answer is no.
I think the states of New Jersey and New York are setting a dangerous precedent. They are not sovereign countries and should not be allowed to erect such draconian laws to affect travelers entering the United States just because their ports of entry happens to be in their states. I think the federal government's decisions should supersede in such circumstances. The least these governors could do was to work in consultation with federal authorities because the ramifications of such policies could have broader dimensions than these governors can foresee now, especially since these important policies were hastily and clumsily derived. The policies are ill-conceived. Ebola is a public health issue and should be taken out of the political arena.
Nurse Hickox hits the nail on the head when she says: "I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in Africa... I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear, and most frightening, quarantine." I also agree with the nurse when she says, "I also want to be treated with compassion and humanity, and I don't feel I've been treated that way in the past three days." That is indeed sad that a Good Samaritan could be given such rude awakening upon returning home; this is not the America they package and sell to us.
I do not know how to drive this point home more effectively than by repeating it: If Ms. Hickox who is an American citizen could be subject to such treatment by these uncaring officials, is there any doubt that a poor hapless foreigner from the Ebola zone will suffer even more severe and inhumane treatment? Will anybody even hear their story? Will anybody care? Will anyone care about the issue of compassion before we get to the issue of legal rights? Will they be entitled to legal rights in the first place? It saddens me when the United States sells itself to the rest of the world as a compassionate society where legal rights for all are guaranteed but those words fly out the window at crucial moments. Yes, it is unfortunate that the world has to deal with such a catastrophe to which an immediate solution is not apparent, but that doesn't mean that fear should force decent societies to forget their obligations to treat others with dignity. Ebola is an epidemic of epic proportions, but we don't have to allow the epidemic of fear to plague us as well.
The Author: Theodore Hodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org