A Harsh Homecoming

Maybe it’s just me, but re-entering the U.S. after international travel can look and feel less like a homecoming these days than a homeland security event, especially after a long often sleepless flight. Airport officials, trained to be business-like and wary, brusquely attend to the paperwork of customs declarations, matching photos with passports, and checking who knows what databases. Newark Liberty has streamlined the experience in comparison with my home airport, Dulles International, and the whole process went very quickly just a few days ago when Mr. D and I transited through on our way home from a three week jaunt to Italy. But then, I wasn’t under suspicion for carrying a deadly virus, though I did come down with a cold three days later.

I sympathize with the fatigue and anxiety felt by Kaci Hickox, the nurse just returned from tending to ebola patients in West Africa who was quarantined under the new guidelines put in place at Newark Liberty International Airport by Governor Chris Christie following the hospitalization of Hickox’s Doctors Without Borders colleague, Dr. Craig Spencer. She felt stigmatized, criminalized, and unheard as she was first left for hours without proper nutrition or a solid explanation of her situation and then whisked away to University Hospital only to be bivouacked in a tent hastily erected outside the building on a chilly October night, still unsure what was actually happening to her.

On the flip side I feel for the folks responsible for protecting us at airports. Their jobs are stressful, their pay doesn’t reflect the level of responsibility they bear and they are asked to do an impossible and thankless job, all the while hampered by budget cuts, sequesters and all manner of political interference. As a retired teacher, I can empathize with their situation; teachers are also asked to deal compassionately with all kinds of people, mindful of socioeconomic impediments, cultural sensitivities, physical and mental health concerns and public safety. Not always the best training, yet no room for error. Nonetheless, I still miss the “welcome home” that used to accompany going through immigration.

Fortress America doesn’t jibe with my sense of my home country as the land of the free and the home of the brave, the generous spirited, “can do” yanks who in the last century saved the world from fascism and communism, eradicated smallpox and put a man on the moon. Has the legacy of 9/11 and the 24 hour news cycle turned us into a people so afraid of threats from outside that we turn on those who dedicate themselves to helping others in need around the globe? Do we really believe that medical professionals who have seen the scourge of ebola up close and personal would casually spread it back home? That these same trained and altruistic professionals, who know the etiology of this disease, would fail to protect even their own loved ones by refusing to monitor themselves?

I’m reminded of the prejudice against HIV/AIDS sufferers in years past. Remember Ryan White, the young boy who was ostracized by his community and expelled from middle school out of fear that he would spread his disease among classmates? Public health officials are repeatedly telling us that ebola is much more like HIV/AIDS than influenza, that those most at risk are not members of the general public but medical professionals in intimate contact with patients. The irony of quarantining Ms. Hickox but not the health care professionals treating Dr. Spencer (or those who treated previous cases) should not be lost on us. No one in Dallas associated with the only ebola fatality so far in the U.S. contracted the disease EXCEPT medical professionals, who self-monitored and did not infect anyone further. Are we really to believe that those most at risk, most educated about the disease, most able to self-monitor need to be shunted off to tents in front of public hospitals for twenty-one days?

Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Meet The Press this morning that the risk of anyone in the general public contracting ebola is miniscule, suggesting that there are levels of monitoring that are appropriate, from self-monitoring, to self-monitoring and being required to report daily temperature readings, to having one’s temperature checked by outsiders. Applying this three-tiered protocol to travelers arriving from West Africa seems sensible to me. Fauci also reiterated that the best way to stop the spread of ebola is to stop it at its source in West Africa, which will require the expertise of gifted American medical professionals, who should not be “disincentivized” from the fight against the deadly disease by being stigmatized and mandatorily quarantined upon their return.

Reading the comments on the Doctors Without Borders repost of Kaci Hickox’s post on the Dallas Morning News website sent chills up my spine. The venom directed toward her, the willingness to go to extremes in government regulation of American citizens frightened me more than the threat of catching ebola. I couldn’t help but compare this to the inability and unwillingness of our political system to confront threats much more likely to harm American citizens: guns and global warming to name just two. The nasty partisanship surrounding the NIH, the “ebola czar” and the midterm campaign reaffirms my sense that we have become a very different country from the one that smiled and welcomed me home as a twenty-something world traveler. The only thing that seems to have gone viral isn’t ebola, it’s unscientific fear-mongering, anonymous online venomous speech and political pandering. We can do better America!!!

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