The man moved with deliberate calm through the airport. He easily overcame the first hurdle. He falsified a legal document. He then moved quickly through a primitive health sensor platform. We are not talking anything on the scale of Waspmote, a triple axis accelerometer soldered on board with more than 70 integrated sensors with applications ranging from temperature to pollution and emissions, forest fires and the control of industrial chemical processes. A woman merely noted his temperature on a piece of paper tucked into a clipboard. Waving him on, he moved to the next level of scrutiny.
Removing his shoes and placing them in a bin, he placed his shoulder bag on the conveyor belt. The screener asked, “Are you aware of any exposure to a deadly pathogen?” He smiled easily and enjoyed a private thought. Checking a temperature at the airport for this pathogen is akin to running a pregnancy test on a virgin. The flight to Brussels was nearly full. He was glad that he had been able to get a seat with such a short lead-time.
From Brussels, the man boarded a flight for Dulles International Airport. Situated 26 miles west of downtown Washington DC, the terminal was a beehive of activity. The airport was on a state of heightened alert due to an evolving threat from Islamic State. The man comforted himself with a very simple thought. What was in his possession had already passed through two levels of protection. As he boarded his final flight for DFW International Airport he requested a pillow and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep. The contagion was becoming a hydra.
Thomas Eric Duncan came to Dallas and moved into an apartment with other adults and several small children. He carried a deadly pathogen through three airports, across state lines and international borders, and into the heart of a booming metropolis. Minus the story components of human plight and fear, his actions can be classified as bioterrorism. Thomas Duncan knew he had been in very close contact with Ebola. He abruptly quit his job without notice. He fled to the US. He brought his pathogen to us. It travelled in a skin suit of about 80 kilos. There was no means of detection for this pathogen. It was cloaked with an incubation period. Let that thought sink in a bit. So it is that we have the first case of Ebola in Dallas, Texas, my stomping grounds. This could have been prevented. But our government functions like their legal arm is paralysed by Enterovirus D 68.
Bottom line? Every government is duty bound to protect its own citizens. The White House has chosen not to prioritise the US’s interests. The health of our workforce and cordon of medical resources? Pffft! Apparently, we are not the priority. Political palsy has overtaken the governmental host. Placing a quarantine on travel of individuals from Ebola hot zones to areas not yet affected by the disease seems a practical application of epidemiology. Instead, our embassies in the hot zones continue to churn out visas. The issuance of a visa was the first link in the chain of transmission.
Mr Duncan committed a criminal act. Yes, I understand the survival instinct. But the man lied about his recent exposure to Ebola. He brought a deadly pathogen to us. And we cannot fully predict how this pathogen will behave when released into large metropolitan areas with corridors of rapid transit. We have reason to shudder at the White House’s lack of responsiveness to a crisis.
In Dallas, it is a comedy of errors. A doctor shows up to check the temperature of the individuals who are “quarantined”. Surprise, surprise! Some of the adults have gone on to work! We also lose track of a homeless man who is a remote contact. Eventually, he is located again. Hopefully, he did not visit the area blood bank to sell his platelets for enough money to buy four packs of cigarettes.
Imagine the fun that will ensue when more skin suits of Ebola touch down from a hot zone. Imagine our hilarity when one incredibly evil individual decides that spreading contagion with simple human contact is cheaper than weaponising the same. The scary version of this story? The scary version begins when an individual with Ebola touches down in Washington DC and spends the few remaining miserable days of their life riding the metro system, contaminating surfaces, coughing on commuters, spraying bathroom stalls with urine, etc. They will create a contact list from hell before their demise. We will be unable to fully track and quarantine the mobile germ factory.
Part of the White House script that we can “control” this situation involves maintaining control over the story. Doctors have contracted Ebola. Now Spain has healthcare workers engulfed in their own personal nightmare. I will not be a soothsayer. I have nothing soothing to relate regarding this deadly pathogen. I believe that we should always speak the truth because adults can handle the truth. Deliver the truth. Always. Let adults decide what to do with the facts as presented. It is about confidence in governance. But it is hard for me, as a nurse, to retain confidence when our visa policies craft the first link for transmission.
The script is being controlled. We will not see images of Ebola ravaged bodies lying on the streets of the US or the boulevards of Europe. This is part of maintaining a script that dampens panic. A poor black man dying on a street in Monrovia seems remote. A critically ill black man isolated in Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is just as sick. But the situation seems equally remote because he is not lying on the street. I support a standstill to visa application processing from countries that are hardest hit by Ebola. It is not about colour or creed. It has nothing to do with our history with Liberia. But, then again, presidential neuroticism will prevail.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org