Some boobs in the media, which now include dozens of Internet websites where anything goes, the wilder and more improbable the better, are up to their usual standard of irresponsibility. The screamers are telling us that Ebola will soon kill us all, many of us at least twice.
Nobody wants to do caution and context anymore. Even on many newspapers, the gold standard of media reliability, the gruff old city editor has put up his green eyeshade and put out his last Five Star Final. Everyone is a pundit, readers grow scarcer, and soon everyone is making more noise than everyone else. Everyone can't find a chair on a television network, but everyone with an iPhone can be the star of his very own video.
The Ebola scare is a media dream come true, better than a search at sea for that Malaysian airliner. Ebola is a terrifying disease, gruesome and merciless, and nothing focuses attention, as Dr, Johnson famously said, like the prospect of hanging. In lieu of a gallows, a killer virus will do.
One researcher calls the epidemic in West Africa the manifestation of a perfect storm, where time and place merged. A virus never had it so good. Cool heads now were never needed more.
"We have one diagnosed case, and now there is a list of people who want to shut the borders to Africa," says Eric Williams, an independent candidate for Congress in a district in south Dallas. It's worse than that. African immigrants in Dallas, where there are a considerable number of them, are wary now of anger directed their way simply because they look in a vague way like Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian visitor who is that first diagnosed case and lies fighting for his life in a Dallas hospital.
"People are looking at us in a bad way," says Shadiya Abdi, 27, a recent arrival from Somalia. "We didn't have anything to do with this. Somalia does not have Ebola. Somalia is on the other side of Africa." It's true, but a passing acquaintance with geography, having been abandoned in most schools to make room for feel-good courses in self-esteem, has rendered most Americans unable to figure out exactly where they are.
The news from Africa is bad enough without making it worse than it is. The epidemic is out of control in the remote villages of Sierra Leone and Liberia, but even from West Africa there's an occasional nugget of encouraging news. Cities in Nigeria, among the most crowded and chaotic in the world, have managed to contain the virus to 20 cases and eight deaths, and international health officials say Nigeria might soon be declared free of the virus.
Even Nigeria, which obviously has an effective level of public health and is light years ahead of the shanty towns of Monrovia and Freetown, is far different from the places in Europe and the United States, where bacteria and viruses find it hard to thrive and multiply.
Peter Piot, one of the researchers who first identified the Ebola virus in his laboratory in Antwerp four decades ago, tells the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that he worries more about the virus spreading to the Asian subcontinent than to Europe and the United States.
"There will certainly be Ebola patients from Africa who come to us in hopes of receiving treatment. They might infect a few people here who may then die. But an outbreak in Europe or North America would quickly be brought under control. I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa."
Doctors and nurses there often don't wear protective gloves or masks, and "it would only take one [Indian] to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus' incubation period and then go to a public hospital there." Epidemic on.
To the man or woman infected, Ebola means pain and suffering. To the family, it means even more pain and suffering. But Washington measures pain and suffering in very specific, measured ways. Will the crisis be a way for President Obama to take effective charge of a crisis and pay attention for once to lift his sagging fortunes? Will the uncertainty and fear around the crisis dash or enhance Republican prospects for winning the U.S. Senate in the elections now less than a month away? Does Ebola give Gov. Rick Perry of Texas an opportunity to make everyone forget his "oops moment" of 2012 and revive his prospects for president in 2016?
Potomac fever, too, is a communicable disease.