Ebola is coming! Ebola is coming! America is doomed!
That, in essence, is the message of the US corporate news media, always on the lookout for the next sensational story with which to stir up hysteria among the public in the interest of higher ratings.
But the thing is, this time, unlike Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear weapons and poison-gas-spewing drone aircraft, Al Qaeda’s non-existent “sleeper cells,” and now ISIS and its supposed army of infiltrators coming to separate our heads from our shoulders, the threat is real.
True to form though, the threat is not what the media are claiming it is.
Ebola is a certainly terrible scourge in poor countries in Africa, where a handful of doctors are expected to provide care to thousands of people and to keep persons who contract the disease isolated so that the infection doesn’t spread. Ebola has spread so rapidly in the war-ravaged little nation of Sierra Leone that doctors there have decided they have to surrender the high ground of bringing all infected people into medical facilities for treatment, and to fall back to advising families who have a member who contracts Ebola to treat them at home as best as they can.
In the US, we have plenty of doctors, and plenty of hospitals with the ability to initiate steps to avoid the spread of disease.
But we do not have universal access to health care — especially to the kind of front-line health care that an epidemic calls for: access to a physician at the first sign of illness, access to affordable medication to treat disease, and even in many cases access to an emergency room.
Worse yet, are US labor policies, which are as if designed by some evil villain to hasten the spread of contagious disease.
Consider this: Most, if not virtually all waiters, busboys, chefs and cleaning staff at restaurants in the US do not get paid sick days–with the exception of those few who have union contracts and have managed to negotiate sick days in their contracts. If they feel like they are getting sick workers with no paid sick leave must do their best to hide their symptoms and go to work. Ditto for the maids and housekeepers who tend to the homes of the wealthy. And the same is true for the majority of the low-paid staff at privately run daycare centers.
Many of these people, should they start to get sick from Ebola, are likely to try and hide those early symptoms, hoping they prove to be nothing. With food to buy, evictions to avoid, and no money for a doctor, such service workers will have to go to work, and the people they serve — restaurant customers, shoppers, and wealthy homeowners — will inevitably become sick with Ebola too.
It’s a kind of unintended but karmic retribution for the wretched state of worker rights in the U.S.
One reason Europeans are not in a state of hysteria about Ebola the way the US public is, besides the confidence Europeans have in their universal health care systems, is that they know that waiters, maids and housekeepers have a right to paid sick leave, so they are not going to be on the job infecting others if they get the disease. They’ll be availing themselves of free or next-to-free healthcare and getting tested and if necessary, treated.
Europeans also know that low-income workers are not going to send sick children off to day care or school. Unlike in the US, where many poor working parents have to choose between leaving small children home alone when they’re sick, or sending them to school anyway, so that their parents can keep their jobs, European parents in countries like Finland, where I spent some time last summer, and most other parts of the EU, have the right to paid leave so they can stay home and care for a sick child. Their schools also have nurses, unlike in the US, where impoverished school districts like Philadlephia have cut their school nurses from the payroll.
These programs are humane and just and have been won through years of labor movement struggle in Europe, but they are also beneficial to all the other people in a country — the middle and upper classes for whom things like health insurance and paid sick days are simply expected.
Not so in the US, where a Darwinian philosophy prevails that argues that the poor do not deserve “handouts” like sick pay or health benefits.
Perhaps then, an Ebola epidemic in the US, horrible as that would be, is just what the doctor ordered, to finally get troglodyte Americans to realize that, if we are not our brothers’ keepers, we will become their victims, or more appropriately, the victims of our own selfishness as a society.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).