Last week a young African football player in Pennsylvania was driven off the playing field by cruel chants of “Ebola” from the rival team.
It was still possible to think of Ebola as a faraway thing last week, but the young man being taunted wasn’t laughing.
He was from Guinea (located just above the West African nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia, both hard hit by the disease) and what his taunters didn’t know is that privately he feared for his family.
“There were tears in his eyes,” his shocked coach told ABC News after the game. The young man had been shaken up so much he left the pitch to the sound of their laughter and mockery.
Who’s laughing now?
This week Texas has more confirmed cases of Ebola than Nigeria. This week a doctor in New York was diagnosed with the disease after riding the city subways and attending a bowling game in the heart of trendy Williamsburg. Last night another woman in the city who had recently returned from West Africa began showing symptoms.
For many observers here the idea that it could arrive to these shores is deeply shocking. We are inured to the prospect of people meeting early deaths in third world nations, but we perk up a bit when the prospect involves ourselves.
War, poverty, ruination and disease are fates that befall forgotten people and faraway nations, but they’re a terrific reality when your neighbor in apartment 1B has his doorway sealed.
It’s already clear that Ebola probably has a lot to teach us, but one of the main early lessons seems to be that everything connects: West African nations that have clawed their way through brutal civil wars and bloodshed and hunger aren’t just their own little problem, they’re really ours too.
Lack of health care, lack of education, lack of money, lack of hope, all of these regrettable conditions help diseases to flourish - and flourish they have.
Ebola reminds us that until the start of this century North America was protected by its geographic location. It reminds us that that is no longer the case. A virus doesn’t discriminate the way people do. Money, position, contacts and clout won’t protect you from germs that may have gotten their start in surroundings you wouldn’t sniff at.
So the anguish conservatives express about our porous borders is often just a conscious expression of a subconscious fear - that we can be reached now, that we are no longer protected the way we once were.
If, heaven forbid, there are more cases and further fatalities in the US, the blaring news cable cycle will help fan the hysteria that is just one match away from catching flame. But we should refuse to take their bait and start blaming people in far away places for diseases we say we don’t understand.
We do understand where Ebola comes from, it’s just that until it started to threaten us personally, we didn’t care. Now we will have ample time to see where our indifference has led us, and where it will always lead us - to our mutual detriment.