the first case of ebola in the united states -- 6/9/21

Today's selection -- from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Ebola reaches the United States:

"In late 2013, a wicked contagion resurfaced in the coastal nations of West Africa. An eighteen-month-old boy died in a village in Guinea. His mother, grandmother, and sister soon died after suf­fering the same hemorrhagic symptoms of Ebola, among the most dreaded diseases known to man.

"Mourners who flocked to the grandmother's funeral carried the virus back to their own villages, and from there, Ebola began decimating families and hamlets in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and killing the doctors who were treating the sick. Anyone with the least exposure had to follow an elaborate hazmat proto­col virtually out of science fiction and still fear that the exposed tip of a finger cut might condemn them to a virus that assured an agonizing death and for which there was then no widely proven vaccine.

"It raged through West Africa as the Western world looked on mostly with pity and detachment. What a continent of sorrow, through the Western lens. These were countries siphoned of their populations during the transatlantic slave trade, then conquered and colonized and now still recovering from the destabilization and wars that these upheavals had wrought.

"To those at a distance, the sad circumstances of these countries, from primeval health systems to ancient burial rites, had brought this plague upon them. The virus spread through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who was showing symptoms, and people infected were to be quarantined in isolation wards. But some villagers despaired of being apart from their loved ones in their last days and chose to stay with them or, unable to get them to a hospital from the villages, had tried to care for sick loved ones themselves. There was an admirable closeness in their family ties that transcended disease. For this, they were blamed as well.

"Far from the villages, dehumanizing photos of dying patients, images that at times deprived them of dignity in their final hours, stretched across the pages of Western newspapers. It was a distant sadness for many Westerners if any emotion registered at all from the safe comfort and buffer of sea and ocean. Thousands of people were dying, and courageous Westerners like Doctors Without Bor­ders flew in to help. But the full artillery of Western science had not stirred to action. This was a problem for Africa, seen as a place of misfortune filled with people of the lowest caste, not the pri­mary concern of the Western powers.

"But the virus did not recognize race or geography, and in the late summer of 2014, several American aid workers contracted the virus while in the afflicted region. Alerted to the existential threat, the United States sent millions in aid and three thousand troops to help with infrastructure and security.

"Then in September 2014, a man boarded a flight from Liberia to Brussels en route to Dallas, to reunite with his partner and son. Unbeknownst to him, he was carrying the virus. He became the first case of Ebola in the United States.

"A Dallas hospital, unprepared for a virus identified with an­other hemisphere, sent the man home with antibiotics when he showed up complaining of symptoms. He later returned in wors­ened condition, and he died within ten days of his eventual diag­nosis. Soon afterward, two of the nurses who had cared for him contracted the virus. Panic set in as news reports retraced the whereabouts of one of the nurses in the days preceding her diag­nosis, after it was discovered that she had been on a commercial plane and had traveled to and from Cleveland. Days later, cable news channels interrupted regular programming to show her being transported on live television to a flight from Dallas to At­lanta for specialized treatment. The scourge that had seemed a problem of another planet was now in the United States.

"That October, shortly after the first diagnosis on American soil and nearly a year after West Africans had been left to manage largely on their own with the help of volunteer health workers, the Food and Drug Administration arranged for an American pharmaceutical company to begin emergency research into an antivirus for Ebola. Eight more people would be diagnosed within months in the United States, their care and condition closely mon­itored in the news.

"The 2014 epidemic struck 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000 in the largest outbreak of Ebola the world had ever seen. The virus brought the interconnectedness of the planet into vivid, terrifying relief. Distance and geography could contain Ebola for a time, but Ebola did not recognize race or color or caste or national origin. A human being was a human being and a prospective new host to a frighteningly efficient virus. The contagion had initially not been seen as the global human crisis it was. Those suffering were West Africans with ill-equipped health systems, a hemi­sphere away. But Ebola, and potentially planet-wide catastrophes like it, as the world would discover beyond imagining six years later, have a way of reminding human beings that we are all in­deed one species, all interwoven, more alike than different, more interdependent on one another than we might otherwise want to believe. Ebola had been merely a whispered forewarning of what was to come."



Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson


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