Politicians stoking Ebola fears are a bigger threat than the disease

Nurse Kaci Hickox is a true American hero, not only for risking her health and life by fighting the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, but also for pushing against the spread of unwarranted panic and political stupidity once she returned to the United States.

Upon her arrival at Newark airport, Hickox was placed in quarantine – not because she was sick or showed any symptoms of having contracted Ebola, but because Gov. Chris Christie wanted to prove he is a tough guy. (When a person spends as much time showing off his testosterone as Christie does, you have to wonder if he's compensating for something.)


Once Hickox was finally freed from her crude and unnecessary incarceration in New Jersey and returned home to Maine, the notoriously nutty Republican governor of that state, Paul LePage, tried to keep her in house quarantine for 21 days. Hickox refused to stay put and went for a very public bike ride last Thursday. She made the completely rational point that, because she is not sick and shows no signs of getting sick from a disease that becomes contagious only after a person has become very obviously and painfully ill, she should not have her liberty taken away by any government.

That's basic constitutional law, but civil liberties and rationality do not seem to count for much to politicians and public authorities who refuse to believe medical science or simply want to enhance their own public standing.

California congressman Darell Issa, the Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, opened hearings into the Ebola problem by repeatedly mispronouncing the name of one of the countries most affected by the disease – he kept saying "Guayana," a nation in South America, instead of Guinea, a center of the outbreak in West Africa. He also mispronounced the name of the disease, calling it "eboli," perhaps confusing it with E-coli. Despite those errors, he spoke as if he knew what he was talking about when he asserted that a person can get Ebola from sitting next to someone on a bus.

Technically, Issa was right. If someone suffering from the advanced stages of Ebola is sitting next to you on a bus or subway train and throws up in your lap, there's a reasonable chance you will get the disease. But, even if, being that ill, medical workers returning from Africa had the strength to climb aboard a bus, it would be hard to imagine them doing so. They would have long before put themselves under medical care in an isolated environment.

The Ebola scare began with a Liberian man visiting the U.S. who eventually died from the disease in Dallas. He spent many days in close quarters with his family and friends before he was admitted to a hospital, yet none of them have gotten sick. That is pretty good evidence, if any were needed beyond what experience has shown and science has indicated, that the disease is not spread until it reaches an acute level. That fact did not preclude New York Republican Rep. Peter King from going on talk radio to speculate that Ebola was somehow becoming airborne or Kentucky's junior Republican senator, Rand Paul, from alleging the disease could be served up at cocktail parties with the martinis and cosmopolitans.

And rationality did not dissuade school officials in Connecticut from banning a 7-year-old girl from school because she had traveled to Nigeria, a country that has been certified Ebola-free by the World Health Organization. Nor did logic infect the thinking of the school board in Maine that put a teacher on leave because she had attended a conference in Dallas that took place 10 miles from the hospital where the Liberian man died.

National moments such as this confirm Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dictum that "All we have to fear is fear itself." Sure, Ebola is scary, but fear, untempered by scientific fact and enflamed for crass political advantage, is an even greater threat to our republic.