Ten at night, SeaTac airport, Seattle, and at baggage claim groups of people are turning their eyes heavenwards, to the overhanging flat screens and CNN, bright red, telling people not to worry about Ebola. One man infected, the crawl says, as the vision shows a block of dilapidated apartments, almost a stock shot for terrible terrible things, now the site where the rest of the man’s family have been quarantined, police black-and-whites parked outside. Someone’s interviewing Dr Sanjay Gupta. “How worried should we be?”
Oh Christ, this is how it happens, isn’t it? We’ve all seen this movie. This scene is about 29 minutes in, after the terrible conspiracy has been revealed. The news always looks fake — “authorities say there is no cause for alarm”. But actually the real news looks exactly like the fake news. “Back to you, Madison”. Usually, about this point, a beefy man holds his tiny daughter a little closer. Later, round the act two climax point, we’ll see her in the isolation tent in the high school that’s been turned into an overcrowded makeshift shelter. “Fools,” we think. “They’re lying to you!” Here, everyone grabs their wheelie case and heads to the shuttle bus. The CNN anchors have spent so much time playing themselves in disaster films, it is now inherently impossible for them to instil a sense of alarm in us.
By morning, well it was all going batshit. From the morning shows through the rolling news cycle, it’s been all Ebola all day (“Anthony Bourdain, you’ve got a new show — before I ask you about that, some thoughts on Ebola”), aside from an occasional break-out to the amazing footage of the recent White House intruder racing across the lawn, evading tackling secret service agents and going straight into the building through an unlocked door. For once, the news cycle wasn’t short of material. As the story unfolded, I suspect I was not the only one of the previous night’s travellers casting a stray thought about possible exposure to the virus in a restroom, an aircraft toilet. Turns out the one thing that disaster movies have, with their sinister deep state governments, is efficiency. In real-world America, the first case of Ebola became a teachable moment in why a little more good government might be a good thing.
Thomas Duncan left Liberia a week ago, transferred via Brussels and DC, and hit Dallas on Monday. He stayed with an old girlfriend, and on Saturday complained of flu-like symptoms. She took him to casualty and claims she told them he had travelled from Liberia. Duncan waited five hours to see a doctor and was eventually sent home with antibiotics, the hospital asking no further questions. The morning after, he was vomiting and shitting diarrhoea all over a one-bedroom flat occupied by five people, and his host’s daughter called the ambulance. The hospital, recognising its error, swung into action — deploying a PR operation to say that Duncan had never disclosed his Liberian nationality, a claim the hospital would soon be forced to detract. The hospital also notified the Center for Disease Control, which told Duncan’s host family to stay into their flat but made no arrangements to have them provided with food or make a hazard assessment of the place itself. Result? Duncan’s host family went out to stock up on food, at which point the CDC called the cops and had them forcibly quarantined. Oh, ha, did I mention they were black?
By now, it was Friday morning (Thursday in the US) , and the news had caught up. The hospital had belatedly admitted that Duncan had made known his Liberian nationality on his first visit. What he hadn’t made known to anyone or written on his Liberian exit card was that he’d been sharing a house with a pregnant woman — they showed a still photo of a one room whitewashed concrete box, with no doors or windows — who died of Ebola before he left.
“Ebola should serve as a global systemic warning on poverty and the tolerance of vast, continuing absolute levels of it, in a world where it could be abolished in a matter of years, if the will were there.”
Still, the CDC was in control, right? Ah, not so much. Tracking back Duncan’s passage across the US, they eventually ascertained that Duncan may have had potentially infectious contact with a hundred or more people, across the US, whom CDC personnel were trying to track down and check. Still, they had taken over care of the people Duncan was staying with, right? Ah, not so much. By morning, the news networks had confirmed that no one had come to the flat to remove the sweated-through sheets, vomit-stained towels or anything else, which Duncan’s ex-girlfriend, her son and two nephews have now been living with for three days. An hour after that report hit the news, about 9.30am, the CDC said it was sending a cleaning crew — though moving the family to a comfortable and safe isolation unit was not suggested. By mid-afternoon, and so this is as I write, that still hadn’t happened. Still, the family weren’t bored, at least: round about midday, Dallas’ aged electricity infrastructure suffered a partial blackout, and they were left without power.
Really, watching this unfold, one feels the jaw dropping every several minutes. A couple of hours ago, Erin Burnett interviewed a British doctor in Sierra Leone, who was asked what doctors in the country do with the sheets and towels of sufferers: “Put on hazmat suits and take them to a pit and burn them,” he said with a touch of winder in his voice, adding, “Mind you, we obviously don’t have the equipment of the US”. I didn’t think anyone could top that for the day, but it was only mid-afternoon.
Fox News had an evening report leaning strongly on the fact that Duncan had lied on his exit form — as if but for these shifty Africans (dying because they help other dying people), everything would be fine. It was anchored by Megyn Kelly, an ice-blonde, wearing a black leather dress, and was — I can’t even, it was pure Nazi television. Earlier Fox had a rare report — the network is playing down the issue, because CNN had it — asking an expert whether Duncan would be able to get some of this ZMapp medicine that had been used to treat two white doctors a couple of months ago. “No,” was the reply. Christ, don’t say because he doesn’t have insurance. “Because they’ve run out of it. It’ll be another six weeks before they have any more.” The segment was bookended by Cialis ads (“see our ad in Golf Magazine”). The mayor of Dallas came on to say that what people were feeling in his town was not fear, but “anxiety”. Fortunately there is no shortage of Xanax.
There is a sense of utter paralysis of a state system, a health system, unable to undertake the most basic acts. Each news hour seems to bring fresh absurdities — such as the realisation that the woman who took Duncan to the hospital when his symptoms became visible is not herself quarantined with the other four people, but is somewhere else. Beyond the mediaeval aspect of immuring people with, am I really typing this, the soiled linen of a patient with a 90% fatal disease that is spread overwhelmingly through out-of-body bodily fluids, beyond the suspicion that a white tourist returning would not get this treatment, there is the sheer inability of the elite to protect themselves, when basic social and material infrastructure has been undermined for so long.
Texas, after all, has become the anti-government state par excellence, with growth rates roaring ahead, based on low taxes, and a relentless decline in its public health and education systems. The risk of contracting Ebola simply by travelling on a plane with a pre-symptomatic sufferer remains very low. The odds from having half-a-dozen people exposed to soiled linens for several days is obviously much higher. The risk is vastly magnified in the US by low education levels, low news consumption, and the fact that a whole layer of society — smaller than it was, but still there — simply do not use the health system, until they crawl into emergency leaking from all orifices.
Really, Ebola should serve as a global systemic warning on poverty and the tolerance of vast, continuing absolute levels of it, in a world where it could be abolished in a matter of years, if the will were there. Quite aside from any moral issue, the only realistic way of minimising the chance of a big one — an airborne or highly infectious disease with the lethality of the 1919 Spanish influenza pandemic — is at the point where its initial exponential spread would occur. We are unlikely to take that lesson. Rather, Ebola will serve as a dry run for that next disease, telling us how to minimise deaths in the West once it has laid waste elsewhere. Anyone who doubts we would lock down parts of Africa and kill it to live has missed the fact that we have been willing to let it die for decades now, something the movies usually skip. But even this warning may not be sufficient in the US for a state system rusted into rictus.
The CDC director is on the news now, saying that he is confident in the organisation etc — one day after Secret Service director Julia Pierson resigned following numerous amazing security breaches, including allowing an armed felon to ride in a lift with President Obama a week after a PTSD-afflicted vet made it into the East Room armed with a knife. Were he to have Ebola, would that snap things to order? Will anything? It would be really good, at this point, to know which movie we’re actually in.