People have been slinging jokes about the Ebola virus since I was a kid. It was “the” disease to reference if you were forced to share a Gatorade with a kid in your carpool or if you had to go somewhere really unsavory, like the mall at holiday times.
Little understood, and greatly feared, it made for the perfect catchall to explain anything amiss with your bodily chemistry. While mostly used in jest in American parlance, I only had to sit half-awake through the meeting for college students interested in studying abroad to realize that kids were genuinely fearful of catching Ebola, even if they were headed to Ireland for the semester.
Therein, however, was the salve: You had to travel to get it. And to somewhere really remote.
Since I don’t really travel beyond where a pizza can be delivered, I never fretted for a moment over Ebola. Even after the movie “Outbreak,” that informed our collective notions about apocalyptic disease hit the big screen, I didn’t worry about it. In fact, I wanted to be an infectious disease specialist after seeing it.
This was career advancement, considering “Pretty Woman” had inspired me to be a prostitute who only sleeps with one very wealthy man who would fall in love with me and take me to polo matches.
While movies and the sensationalized media blitzes of late will have us think otherwise, the thing that has persevered about Ebola over the last 30-something years, besides that it will still kill you, is that we have to venture off the beaten path to get it.
It’s not a pathogen clinging to public toilet seats or something being spewed into the air with every February cough. It’s lurking deep in the jungles of Africa, taking shelter within species, like bats and things that eat bats, of which Americans have the luxury of not interacting, and the even greater privilege of not having to eat.
I have seen a bat exactly three times in my life, twice behind glass at a zoo and once in an attic where it met its demise at the hands of an exterminator I hired after screaming and falling down the stairs to escape it.
This, I figure, is the American way.
However, some Americans, those cast with more mettle and vim than I, do venture off the beaten path. They soldier into the forgotten loam, borderlands about which they know nothing because a lifetime spent ordering lattes through a drive-thru window ill prepares you for the truth of life there.
They go to make change. They go to nurse the infirmed. They go to talk of God. They go to sit across from someone with whom they have not one thing in common only to be struck by the constellation of humanity that a stranger’s irises can hold.
Then something unspeakable happens. They come into contact with a nightmarish virus that rips through their organs with the objective to send their life seeping out into the bedsheets. There’s little hope in the way of medicines and treatments because assets like that are only being researched and formulated in Western nations.
So America does what America can. We bring our people home, where they stand a fighting chance. We rush them into the hotbed of infectious disease expertise so that two humans may be spared the agony that hundreds in Africa have not.
This, on some level, is what makes our chests swell with pride at being American: Our country looks out for us.
I once had my clothing ridiculed while in London, and I wanted the U.S. to send an envoy. I lost my ID in Singapore and I spent the rest of my trip waiting for my own personal diplomat to arrive with a new passport and a hamburger.
If I caught a deadly disease while ministering to another country and trying to impede the spread of worldwide disease, I would certainly expect an armada.
That was not the end of this story, however. It got worse.
What could be worse than catching Ebola?
Catching flak from your countrymen for putting them at risk while your body is busy dying. Vitriol from outraged citizens ping-ponged around the internet and news outlets, irrational citations of depopulation efforts by the government stacked upon the typical ethnocentric barbs.
We, as Mainers, saw it first when the planes carrying these suffering souls touched down in our state. People watched with twisted interest the live news coverage of, well, absolutely nothing.
We stared, unblinking, at a plane being refueled on a runway, like it was going to burst into flames and send Ebola storming through our television screens. Commentary pulsed with anger, demanding the planes head back to Africa, a directive tantamount to a death sentence.
Despite proclamations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization that Ebola would not spread in this country, we behaved as though a global contamination was already upon us, like Beatlemania in its quest to overtake our nation, with hysteria and high-pitched screaming to boot.
The facts suggest that Ebola will snuff itself out inside the glass-plated rooms within which it is currently being held hostage, its hazmat-suited executioners monitoring its every move.
It will also skulk back into the jungles of Africa, to lie in the shadows again. Next time it peeks its head out, perhaps we will all stand ready with medicine and an international protocol instead of wails and tweets about the survival of mankind.
Ebola may have been a joke on this continent until now, but it has never been in Africa.