These days, watching HBO and CNN is rather similar—that is, if HBO is rerunning the 2011 hit-film “Contagion.”
In “Contagion” a fatal flu rapidly spreads from Macau to Minnesota, changing configuration and dumbfounding a team of infectious disease specialists who are far too pretty to be real. (Honestly, are we supposed to believe Kate Winslet and Jude Law can be a scientist and a journalist and also that good looking?)
While the real-life epidemic has largely been contained to West Africa, several patients have come down with it across the U.S. Our famed Center for Disease Control has been—shall we say—lackluster in response?
But this really shouldn’t have thrown them for a loop. It’s not our first recent brush with disease.
I can still remember the massive mobilization that swine flu sparked; the frenzied end-of-the-world preparations were front-page news for weeks on end.
I was in sixth-grade, and H1N1 was gaining major media attention right around the time of the middle-school field trips.
With fear in her eyes, my mother stashed several boxes of surgical gloves, face masks and gallons of hand sanitizer in my suitcase.
I also remember when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS struck places as varied as Kuwait, Ireland and Hong Kong. That specific outbreak was a lesson to the global community: act quickly and act decisively.
And this summer, when Ebola was first starting to spread, I was in Hong Kong, the veritable rats’ nest of contagious diseases. From Middle East Respiratory Syndrome to SARS, that city has a penchant for biological ailments, fostered by cramped quarters and a sauna-like climate.
When I departed Chek Lap Kok International Airport, all passengers received thermal checks and some were individually screened for signs of the disease. Ebola was on everyone’s minds.
But when I came home to SFO, I found an utter lack of regard for public safety and wellness. In what is arguably one of the most advanced cities in the world (Silicon Valley is only a stone’s throw away), there was no screening at all.
Some might argue that the TSA has its hands full trying to ward off the next terrorist attack.
But then you think of the numbers. The deadliest terror attack in modern history, the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, killed approximately 3,000 people. The Spanish Influenza though, killed—by even the most conservative accounts—50 million.
Looking back even further, the Black Death set Europe back a millennium in thought and culture.
While we have far superior health resources today, the proliferation of media has made it easier to spread the most contagious disease of all—fear.
If Ebola were to spread in a manner similar to that of the Spanish flu, I’m afraid that we simply wouldn’t have the wherewithal to counteract the problem.
So when President Obama announces he is appointing an Ebola czar, instead of applauding him, we should be asking why it has taken him this long.
In the meantime while the CDC, White House and World Health Organization try to figure out what to do, simple words of reassurance just won’t be enough for the majority of us.
And for those who don’t think of disease as a major threat to both society and our own personal health, pop in “Contagion,” and watch Kate Winslet and Matt Damon bring about the end of our society.
And I’ll see you in aisle 313 at Costco stocking up on hand sanitizer very soon.