Stay Calm and Report on Humanity
Stay Calm and Report on Humanity

Now some nameless leaders in the Army have decided to quarantine soldiers and officers who went to West Africa—and had no contact with Ebola patients. None. Some governors are going their own way and instituting quarantines.

The unfortunate hospital in Dallas that tried and failed to save Thomas Eric Duncan has lost about 25 percent of its revenue and patient load, according to Thomas Huang, editor at The Dallas Morning News and ethics and diversity fellow at The Poynter Institute. It lost 50 percent of its emergency room visitors.

Colleges have disinvited speakers because they went to West Africa. This is not reasonable. No one from West Africa will be running in the New York City Marathon, organizers felt the need to announce.

Help, Not Hurt

Poynter, that great and good resource for journalists, sponsored a discussion Thursday about how to cover the story of Ebola in a way that helps, not hurts.

Helping would mean acting as watchdogs on authorities, according to Poynter ethicist and Vice President of Academic Programs Kelly McBride. “Ask if they are making reasonable decisions or if they are being irrational,” she said.

That is always a good question. It’s a good question to look in the mirror and ask, and a good question to ask one’s leaders.

Ebola may qualify as a kind of October surprise. Some candidates and pundits are using it to criticize their political foes, in my opinion. They seem to be hoping to feed voter angst, which can be a good emotion to benefit nonincumbents. That is not a good reason to incite people to be irrational or to panic.

The conflicting information the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered at the beginning of Duncan’s ordeal did not inspire confidence.

Solid Facts

Despite that, there are solid facts about the illness. “As criticized as it has been, the CDC has a good backgrounder on Ebola,” said Huang.

The facts are: No one is contagious until he or she becomes ill. It is not airborne. It is not at all likely to mutate to become airborne. When viruses mutate, they often become weaker and less transmissible, not stronger and more virulent. According to a statement Monday from Doctors Without Borders, “Medical science has demonstrated that asymptomatic people with Ebola infection do not transmit the virus. Ebola is also not an airborne virus, like cold or flu viruses. It is only transmitted through direct contact with an infected, symptomatic person’s body fluids, such as blood, vomit, and feces.”

McBride said to make sure to include those facts in any Ebola story. She said it’s especially important to include those facts for young people and students, who get their information in such piecemeal ways that they can miss the basics.

This reminds me a little of the fear and unreason at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. That deadly illness is also not easily transmitted. Yet people were very uneasy being around HIV-positive people. Sometimes they were uneasy to the point of being hostile.

“We are seeing a certain amount of xenophobia,” said McBride. “So I think stories that elicit compassion, that show people in their humanity and not as potential sources of infection” are important to do.

You cannot do too much of “stories that show people’s humanity,” said McBride.

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