Whatever became of Ebola? For weeks in October 2014, it was all the rage in America. Patients coming for treatment in Atlanta and Nebraska were monitored by a swarming media. A physician kept New York City on edge because prior to becoming ill, he had ridden on the subway, gone out to eat, and touched a few “rocks” in “throwing some lines” at a Manhattan bowling alley before winding up in isolation at Bellevue. A nurse just back from West Africa told off a couple of governors who tried to quarantine her, took the most photographed bike ride since a steroidal Lance Armstrong completed the Tour de France, and wound up getting a judge to permit her to roam her hometown of Fort Kent, Maine—presumably to the displeasure of the wildlife there, who vastly outnumber humans. Some politicians screamed for airports to be closed to anyone coming from Africa, until they realized that this would include Americans trying to return home. The Internet was awash with rumors that terrorists had or would smuggle Ebola across the Mexican border to use as a biological weapon. A few schools closed when it turned out that a pupil had an uncle or cousin who had either been to Liberia as a missionary, could spell Sierra Leone, or identify where Guinea was on a map.
Then came November, and Ebola completely vanished from the national consciousness. The Republicans clocked President Barack Obama at the polls and took over the Senate. That story dominated the headlines. Then Obama, who had been more or less somnolent for the previous year, awoke from his slumbers and responded to the political vote of no confidence by sticking his finger in the eye of the Republicans, announcing a unilateral immigration amnesty policy. That got a few days of intense coverage. A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, issued no indictment of anyone in the death of Michael Brown; that got a few days of attention. And then came Thanksgiving. And when those events were done so, seemingly, was Ebola.
Well, not completely. In November, Ebola was still a major public-health threat in West Africa, with thousands of new cases; many deaths, including local doctors, nurses, and gravediggers; economies in shambles; and orphans all over the place. But America’s moral vision did not extend beyond its borders, and Americans’ attention spans had maxed out after about a month of coverage.
So the primary lesson to be learned from Ebola is that you can’t rely on Americans to engage with an epidemic that they don’t think threatens them directly. A secondary lesson is that American anxiety is fueled by media outlets that have no interest in covering or talking about epidemics that do not directly threaten Americans. This is a function of the primary lesson learned from Ebola.
So what lessons can be drawn from the intense but brief life of Ebola? The world needs a standing medical force that is well trained and ready to get to remote parts of the globe in a few weeks. Volunteers won’t do. Rare infectious diseases need more money allotted to their study at the National Institutes of Health and by other major research organizations. There is no lobby to achieve this, so it just has to get done by medical and scientific leaders. If we are going to use quarantine as a method to fight a disease, we had better figure out how and what level of enforcement we are able to apply. And last, if the world wants protection against deadly plagues, it had better do a better job of teaching geography—including major rail, maritime, aviation, and migratory routes—so that Americans can begin to appreciate that what is in one part of the world today will almost certainly arrive here a few days or weeks later. Whether it is computers, animals, plants, or people, a focus on “America only” is a foreign policy that only a virus could love.
Arthur L. Caplan is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at Langone Medical Center, both at New York University.