“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” –Jimmy Buffet
Government leaders are frantic to do something, anything, to assuage concern about the potential spread of Ebola. But air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.
Nonetheless, the government answer is, as in so many crises, that even doing a useless thing is better than doing nothing. So we now have “increased screening” at several airports, including JFK. But the problem is, the Ebola patient who died recently in Dallas arrived from Brussels, while the increased screening targets passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leonne, and Guinea. One connection later, as in his case, the possibility of detection is beyond the “new” screening.
Meanwhile, no mention is made of special screening of international arrivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all of which have seaports and airports with regular international arrivals from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Dallas Ebola carrier could just as easily have entered the US on the west coast–or through DFW, Chicago or Miami for that matter–with no additional “screening.” And the notion that increasing screening at certain airports is the solution sidesteps the fact that a traveler could arrive in Mexico City or Toronto and simply drive or walk across the border; or, working a cargo, tanker or cruise ship, simply enter through any seaport. Again, it’s not air travel, it’s global mobility that is the vulnerability.
In any case, the special new air travel screening is really little more than a drug store twenty dollar digital thermometer and a lot of self-reporting. That charade is more theater than medicine, as Ebola has proven time and again, lying dormant well past the initial examination. The “enhanced” screening ignores the majority of the arrivals, and has a limited accuracy due to the incubation period of the disease, for the small minority of international arrivals who are screened. And there’s no special screening for the enormous flow of rail, sea or motor transportation across our borders.
And even worse yet, the lynchpin of the “enhanced” screening procedure is truthful answers to posed questions. The Dallas Ebola carrier simply didn’t report his exposure in order to enable his travel and the new “temperature check” wouldn’t have–and didn’t, as he departed Africa–detect the latent disease anyway.
Given the high profile of Ebola as news media rush to cover and broadcast a “scare,” it was inevitable that panic would attend an incident of vomiting on an airplane. But the reality is, passengers getting airsick is as old as air travel itself. I used to take it personally as a pilot, as if I’d somehow not flown smoothly enough. That was until I noted that even just taxiing out from Las Vegas or New Orleans was often attended by hangover puking in the cabin. Now, however, this typical, ugly occurrence warrants a Hazmat response, plus YouTube and Twitter coverage of the unfortunate event.
The crossroads of Ebola and air travel is a cataclysm of the news media at its worst and social media at its best: the tail wags the dog as regular news sources struggle to keep up with the instantaneous digital grapevine of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
In the end, cable and broadcast media abdicate their responsibilities to investigate and report facts and simply show random, unmediated Tweets and video clips and call it news. As a nation we’re all the worse for indulging in group hysteria, but it seems that nothing is more important for an individual with a cellphone than a shot at the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame which the desperate-for-headlines news media recklessly offers. Culture, unfortunately, trumps common sense and journalistic ethics.
Meanwhile, the government implements showy passenger screening changes for air travel only and calls that prevention, neglecting any meaningful intervention in a global threat by attacking the disease itself. That in a nutshell is the hopeless tragicomedy that is the “first world” public and government response to a deadly plague.
Because while the media microscope is trained on flights and “screening,” the root cause languishes in the background. In reality, controlling global mobility by all modes, and developing a vaccine is the right strategy. But that sensible call to action seldom heard above the media uproar about air travel. Which only confirms for me what a very wise woman I know is wont to say: “We are a nation of idiots.”
So as Jimmy Buffet suggested, we might as well laugh about it while we can, or at least until someone finally (if ever) looks beyond air travel and focuses on a real containment strategy, plus a vaccine. Because as I’ve said, air travel is neither the problem nor the solution.
Meaningful action won’t come from the fumbling “government,” and it sure won’t be the hapless news media. But the joke’s on us until then.