The first case of ebola has emerged in the United States and, judging from the news headlines, the country is entering a collective conniption fit. I'm not sure exactly what a “conniption fit” is, or whether it might be a symptom of ebola, but whatever it is, America is having one.
This morning my colleague Marie Goodwin shared with me a news headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Health Officials Say Ebola in Philadelphia is Conceivable.” Truer words were never spoken. Yes, indeed it is conceivable. And – Oh my God! – if it is conceivable in Philadelphia it is also conceivable that ebola could be coming to a town near you!
Of course, as I remarked to Marie, it is also conceivable that a Klingon spaceship could land in Philadelphia. Or, far more likely than an ebola outbreak, but less likely in my mind than a Klingon attack, the United States could be struck by an earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power planet disaster, or an epidemic of autoimmunity, obesity, depression, suicide, poverty, and domestic violence. Oh wait, that one is already happening.
Now please don't think, because of my jocular tone, that I am making light of ebola in America. No one takes this matter more seriously than myself. That is why I would like to offer a modest proposal to keep us all healthy and safe.
The authorities have already taken a positive first step in imposing a 21-day quarantine on the 50 people with whom the man who returned from Nigeria to Texas with ebola had contact. With the danger safely contained, we must make sure no further threat from Darkest Africa can penetrate our country. Tighter procedures at immigration and customs, such as thermal screenings for fever, are not enough, because if someone is symptomatic by then, other people on their flight, and indeed in the entire airport, might have been infected. I therefore call on the authorities to build quarantine facilities nearby all international airports, large enough to accommodate tens of thousands of people. Have no fear – in most cases, the feverish passenger will turn out not to have ebola, but only food poisoning or the flu, in which case everyone can be released from quarantine in a few days. This is a small price to pay for our security.
Besides, the quarantine facilities might also be useful to contain other scary diseases that, like homegrown terrorism, could conceivably emerge on U.S. soil. Of course, they will have to be built with a high level of security so that misguided individuals who don't understand the seriousness of the threat won't try to escape.
The ideal solution to infectious disease would be to have everyone in quarantine all the time. Since this, sadly, is not feasible at present levels of technology, I propose we institute a 24-hour location monitoring system for all individuals in the United States and, one day, globally. In the event of an outbreak, this will allow the health authorities to trace the contacts of every sick individual over the preceding infectious period and issue a home quarantine order for each of them, which will be enforced by the same monitoring system.
The technology for such a system is already in place – smartphones track our location all the time and can be seen as a kind of beta test for implanted tracking devices. These devices should also have medical monitoring functions built in, so that if the individual develops a fever or other symptoms of infectious disease, the appropriate authorities will be notified and he or she will receive a home quarantine order.
Needless to mention, such a system also provides the police a new and potent weapon against terrorism and crime. If you are not sick and are breaking no law, you'll have nothing to fear.
I am confident you will give my proposal the consideration it deserves.
Seriously now, why is it that infectious disease and terrorism provoke such hysteria in the media, whereas the threat of a nuclear accident – which is far more likely – is downplayed? Let me offer a rule to predict what gets pumped up and what gets ignored: If the crisis provides ready means to increase the amount of control over society, it gets played up. If it is a crisis that defies our technologies of control, and especially if it is crisis that reveals the futility of control, then it is hidden away. I am not claiming a conscious conspiracy among the power elite to use ebola as an excuse to tighten their control over society, but it certainly plays out that way: any crisis that can be used as a pretext for more control, will be.
That is why we have seen such hysteria over ebola, flu, SARS, crime, Al-Qaida sleeper cells, Isis, illegal drugz, and various geopolitical badguys. Each offers an easy pretext for more control in the form of prisons, border fences, surveillance, monitoring, and so forth. But more than that, they fit comfortably into one of the defining narratives of civilization as we know it, that I call “fighting evil.” We know how to do this. We are comfortable with problems where there is an identififiable enemy to, fight. It is, in a way, reassuring to have an enemy against which our familiar methods of managing reality are effective. We know how to do quarantines, make vaccines, kill weeds, kill people, lock them up, keep them out. We can remain in a familiar world of us versus them.
However, the real threats to our well-being are by and large of a different nature. They are, in fact, the result of the us-versus-them mentality, and cannot be solved from that mentality. First among these is the ecological crisis, which is showing us undeniability that what we have done to nature, we have done to ourselves. The other things I mentioned – autoimmunity, depression, suicide, domestic violence – are also not things that we can keep out or kill. They portend a transition with which we are not comfortable. That is why they remain in the depths, under the froth of media hysteria. Let's see the froth for what it is.
And please, let's not forget the Klingon threat.