The Most Ignorant American Ebola Panic of the Moment

Photo: Joe Henchman

This woman at the airport last week wearing a DIY Hazmat suit (with her wrists still exposed) is not even the worst of it.

As the spread of Ebola within the United States continues to not happen — we repeat: Only one person has died and two nurses who were in direct contact with him are currently being treated — the string of uninformed overreactions grows longer by the day, and shows once again that Americans have no idea how African geography works, let alone how a non-airborne virus is transmitted.

1. East Africa vs. West Africa

A school in New Jersey expecting two new students from Rwanda — more than 2,500 miles from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — opted to side with hysterical parents over common sense and decency:

Warranted or not, the Ebola scare has hit Howard Yocum Elementary School in Maple Shade, New Jersey. The school has been notifying parents that two students from an east African nation have enrolled. They were supposed to begin classes on Monday; however, after backlash from parents, those kids are now being kept out of school.

Although “the school was going to take precautions, by taking the African students’ temperature three times a day for the next 21 days,” that wasn’t enough for the people who have absolutely no idea how this disease works:

Just two days after the letter went to teachers, the Maple Shade School District changed course and went public with a note on the district website […]

The Maple Shade School District takes the health of all students and staff very seriously. As many of you are aware, we have students who have spent time in the eastern portion of Africa that were scheduled to start in our schools on Monday. This area of Africa has been unaffected by the Ebola virus. Despite the fact that the students are symptom-free and not from an affected area, the parents have elected to keep their children home past the 21 day waiting period. The family is looking forward to joining the Maple Shade Schools the following week.”

Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There’s nobody affected here let’s just keep it that way,” said one parent, to whom “that area” means the space from Philadelphia to Seattle.

2. The Woman Who Went to Dallas

Schools in Ohio and Texas had similar overreactions last week, after it was reported that one of the nurses who contracted the disease from Thomas Eric Duncan flew between the cities before she showed symptoms (and was therefore not contagious). Someone in Maine, it turns out, also traveled to Dallas, although there’s absolutely no indication that person was anywhere near the nurse or her body fluids:

A teacher at Strong Elementary School was placed on a 21-day paid leave of absence after parents told the school board they were concerned that she might have been exposed to Ebola during a trip to Dallas for an educational conference. […]

At this time, we have no information to suggest that this staff member has been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to Ebola,” the district wrote in a statement published on its website. “However, the district and the staff member understand the parents’ concerns. Therefore, after several discussions with the staff member, out of an abundance of caution, this staff member has been placed on a paid leave of absence for up to 21 days.”

3. And in Mississippi 

An enormous crowd of parents pulled their children out of school Wednesday after learning that the Hazlehurst Middle School principal returned to work after a trip to southern Africa.

Principal Lee Wannik traveled to Zambia for his brother’s funeral, which is far from the Ebola hot spot countries on the other side of Africa.

4. The Self-Sequester

The New York Times today details the “murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic,” including the decision to just not leave the house until the disease is contained:

Carolyn Smith of Louisville, Ky., last week took a rare break from sequestering herself at home to take her fiancé to a doctor’s appointment. She said she was reluctant to leave her house after hearing that a nurse from the Dallas hospital had flown to Cleveland, over 300 miles from her home. “We’re not really going anywhere if we can help it,” Ms. Smith, 50, said.

With panic standards like those, it could be a while.

5. Higher Learning

And it’s not just the unenlightened: Syracuse University, a supposed place of knowledge, uninvited photojournalist Michel du Cille, who had been covering Ebola in Liberia, despite the fact that he had not shown any symptoms after the recommended 21-day monitoring period:

The school’s dean, Lorraine Branham, said a student who was researching du Cille prior to the workshop found out he had recently returned from Liberia and expressed concern. Provost Eric Spina spoke with health officials and made the call.

It’s a disappointment to me,” du Cille said. “I’m pissed off and embarrassed and completely weirded out that a journalism institution that should be seeking out facts and details is basically pandering to hysteria.”

In a note on Facebook, du Cille explained: “What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis. I guess it is easier to pull the hysteria and xenophobia cards.” It always is.