This afternoon the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta—which is far too close to where I live—confirmed that a person who arrived in the USA from Liberia on September 20th has tested positive for the Ebola virus. This marks the first case of the disease to be diagnosed in the United States.
When touching down in America ten days ago, the patient, who is thought to be male, displayed no symptoms. A few days later, the telltale signs of an Ebola infection—which include high fever, vomiting, unexplained bleeding, and a skull-cracking headache—emerged.
How about a morbid sense of dread? Is that acceptable?
It seems like only a month or so ago that they were reassuring us everything was cool, everything was under control, they got it handled, don’t freak out, you’re worrying too much, you’re ignorant, shut the fuck up, and everything’s peachy.
And now the CDC is projecting up to 1.4 million cases worldwide by January.
I’ve dealt with the fear of a New Plague before.
I moved to New York City the October day in 1985 when Rock Hudson became the first celebrity AIDS fatality. Back then there was widespread public dread that AIDS would obliterate human life from the planet. I didn’t want to touch subway railings and worried that when summer came, mosquitoes would be able to transmit HIV with one tiny poke under your skin. These all proved to be unfounded fears.
I also remember the other extreme, where so-called experts repeatedly and condescendingly insisted that only 20% of people who are exposed to HIV will ever die from it. That was the mantra back then—only 20% will die from it. They were wrong, and they may have cost more than a few lives due to their overconfidence. A lot of times, the experts don’t know shit and are too afraid to admit it.
I still get a queasy feeling whenever I think of Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid masterpiece The Masque of the Red Death, involving a plague ravaging the countryside whose symptoms involved “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.” In the story, Prince Prospero and a thousand friends quarantined themselves in one of his abbeys and held a costumed ball, certain that the Red Death would only eat the peasants alive and couldn’t possibly reach them. And yet at the end of the story, the Red Death snaked its way inside the abbey and snuffed them all.
I thought of that story today when I heard of the news in Dallas. It turns out that a dozen years ago, someone else had made the connection between Ebola and Poe’s Red Death—two writers at the CDC.
Sure, don’t flip your wig and do something drastic. That would be stupid. But neither should you be smug and smirky and smarmy and snarky and say there’s no reason to worry. That may end up being be dumber by miles.