The caller wanted to know what makes members of Congress think they’re so smart. Those use of us in the news biz are used to this question, except we’re usually asked why we think WE are so smart.
But this caller was talking about members of Congress who want to ban travel from places in West Africa where Ebola is a problem, even though the people who are paid to know such things say that would be a bad idea.
Why, the caller asked, would someone with no background in medicine or science think they know about germs and stuff than actual scientists and doctors?
Ah, I answered, you don’t seem to realize that getting yourself elected to Congress automatically makes you smarter than anyone on the planet, including the president of the United States, all the Ph.D.’s lined end-to-end, and the Dalai Lama, all mind-melded together.
Ha, ha, the caller said. This is no joking matter.
I did not bother telling him I wasn’t entirely joking. As far as I can tell, a person summoned to appear before a congressional hearing on the subject of Ebola or anything else is rarely there to explain things. They are there either to be told how wrong they are — especially if they happen to be associated in any way with the opposite party — or as props for whatever dog and pony show is being trotted across the stage.
The caller was not exactly a neutral observer. He had pretty much decided this particular member of Congress was a dummkopf long before cable news, bloggers, and then the rest of of us news types turned one fatal case of Ebola into so many spinoffs of The Walking Dead. But he had a point — namely, that some people seem to be going to extreme and maybe dangerous lengths to exaggerate the situation for the sake of some votes on Nov. 4.
Ebola is absolutely a serious and scary disease. Especially if you’re in West Africa, where it’s actually an epidemic. And it could be here, too, if we’re unusually careless — which seems to be what happened with the one fatal case here in the U.S. In that instance, a Dallas hospital was able to accurately diagnose the patient as uninsured, but not as infected with a painful, deadly disease that the entire planet is afraid of catching.
So yes, Ebola is dangerous and not to be taken lightly. But an American is more likely to be struck by lightning in the next year than killed by Ebola. They are certainly more likely to die of stroke, heart attack, cancer, AIDS, suicide, the common flu or even bee stings. They are more likely to be hit by a drunk driver or die of a drug overdose or from falling out of a window.
The fact of the matter is, in nearly 50 years the most deadly outbreak of an infectious disease other than HIV/AIDS — admittedly, a very big exception — was a round of whooping cough that killed 9,400 Californians in 2010. Nothing else has been close.
Americans have a hard time keeping things in perspective, and we news types don’t help, especially when everything depends on ratings points and page views. Politicians understand this, and sometimes try to exploit it.
But I must admit I heard a surprising response to the current situation from one of our esteemed members this week. Someone asked him about Ebola. He wasn’t that worried, the congressman said. There’s always been something, from legionnaires’ disease to SARS to the new strains of TB, and the Centers for Disease Control has had a very good record controlling them. The congressman said he would trust them on this, too.