According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, almost half of Americans have a fear of contracting Ebola. The one thing staving off my absolute cynicism is that, while there are still stories about the terrifying dangers of Ebola, there is also no shortage of commentaries stating exactly what’s wrong with this situation. The two main criticisms of the Ebola “crisis” are that the media is dangerously sensationalizing it and that Americans are hypocritical and egocentric to a fault. That mainstream news sources are more concerned with generating attention than providing reliable information is nothing new or surprising.
What is more interesting to me about this particular case is all the talk of American selfishness. It’s a relatively easy point to argue: Ebola, all of a sudden, became an issue that needed to be dealt with, solely because it was an illness that dared to start hurting good ol’ red-blooded Americans. It seems like a black-and-white situation of Americans being egregiously self-centered, but upon thinking about it, I’m not quite sure.
I’m sure educating people would help mitigate the general public fear caused by the flood of over-hyped Ebola monitoring, and this is an idea that most people support. But there’s also the implicit notion in many articles that educating the American public on the realities of Ebola will make the country less egocentric: if we teach America that Ebola is a problem that African countries face to a far greater degree, then it will presumably shift its fear into action and start using its resources to better aid the African countries for the betterment of all involved. That’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems like education would lead to the general public just not caring about Ebola, either in Africa or America: Africa would be just as distant to them as it was before Ebola became topical, and they’d also know that their chances of getting Ebola are too slim to panic about.
And I don’t even know if that disinterest would be an issue. I genuinely don’t. Africa is not relevant to most Americans. It’s not in the public consciousness for the most part. It’s not something that will pertain to their lives. It’s not like Americans are putting active, deliberate effort into being terrible humans who don’t care about the rest of the world. It’s just not a thing people think about. People don’t tend to be very invested in things that they don’t perceive as being relevant. People in America cared about Ebola because they were suddenly given a reason to start thinking about it in relation to themselves.
I agree that that’s not a very good thing. It is callous, to say the very least. But I don’t know what a realistic, applicable alternative to that would be. There are two extremes, and both of them are terrible: people could either be sociopaths who do not care at all about events that don’t pertain to them, or, alternatively, they could care about everything, even about the things that don’t pertain to them at all. I don’t see how the second option is any better than the first. People do not have the capacity to be invested in everything bad that happens everywhere, and they shouldn’t be expected to. A lot of the rhetoric used in the anti-sensationalist Ebola coverage paints Americans in what I think is a very undeservedly negative light simply for being afraid of something that they suddenly perceived as a threat.
I focused on the two extremes because the middle ground between the two is tricky, and it’s almost totally ignored in favor of just calling America a country of idiots and/or bad people who panic as soon as they have the slightest issue but can’t be bothered to care about anyone from another country. What would the middle ground be?
Americans could react to this Ebola scare by realizing that the U.S. citizens with Ebola are outliers that shouldn’t cause a panic and that the focus should probably be put on helping Africa since it’s the place with the actual problem. But wouldn’t that just be another instance of Americans only worrying over something because it found its way into the public consciousness somehow, therefore being just as self-centered and reactionary, just in a more helpful fashion? Isn’t that what many of these commentators are doing themselves? There weren’t very many mainstream news articles helpfully and consistently educating the populace about the importance of improving African health care before Ebola became topical.
Is that acceptable, then? Is it the mentality that’s wrong, the real-world action, or both? If it’s not acceptable to be deeply invested in something only after you heard about it on the news first, that would imply that America as a unified country should just vaguely and consistently care about Africa, and presumably all other foreign affairs — why would Africa be more important than other places with problems?— just as much as it cares about things closer to home.
I will be the first to say that hyperbolic hysterics help nothing and no one, and America is definitely at fault for indulging in that behavior, but I just don’t know where people want that empathy line to be drawn. How much should the average American care about Africa in order to be considered a good person? At what times should they care? Is it just as wrong that Americans don’t go around actively caring about the lethal illnesses that could be found in their own country? Is it just as wrong that people in Sweden probably don’t care about Americans? There are plenty of Americans that cared about healthcare in Africa beforehand, but to expect that same level of awareness from the country as a whole is unrealistic.