The stories of the two nurses who treated Ebola victims are uncomfortable to hear. One, recently cleared of the deadly virus after having cared for the Liberian man who died in a hospital bed, was given a hero’s welcome and a bear hug by President Obama. The other, recently returned from helping victims in Sierra Leone, lashed out at officials for putting her on quarantine despite testing negative for the virus.
The grave tragedy of the virus is that it hits the caretakers the most; the brave and selfless individuals who are fighting back against the disease’s advance are putting themselves in tremendous danger and risking becoming the vectors to the very disease they are trying to stop.
Is Nina Pham a hero for caring for Thomas Duncan? Would you fault her for whatever breach of protocol led to her contracting the disease and risking its spread? She was brave, selfless and obviously didn’t want to cause any harm–mistakes happen and this was just one of them. Did “hero” just mean someone who got unlucky while in some noble service? (In the way that we colloquially refer to marines who fall).
What about Kaci Hickox? With the public gripped by fear, it’s understandable that she became a victim of that fear, despite not showing any symptoms, and quarantined for 21 days. What if she is at risk of spreading the disease, the electorate may wonder. The selfless deeds of the past cannot justify subjecting the entire country to the risk.
Yet what message do we send to these brave and selfless individuals when we treat them with no dignity? Who will follow in their footsteps, doing the important work of fighting the disease?
We need to be pragmatic.
Nurses who treat at-risk individuals must go through extensive training and exercises to ensure they don’t become vectors. It wasn’t fair to Nina that she wasn’t adequately prepared to handle the case.
People who arrive from at-risk regions or were in contact with someone who was, but aren’t showing symptoms (and thus not contagious) need regular monitoring until the end of the incubation period. Kaci should be allowed to return home and rest after her long journey, with regular check-ups to ensure symptoms don’t appear.
People who show symptoms or are otherwise contagious should be immediately taken to a facility that is prepared to handle them.
We can’t ostracize the people who risk their lives to help others by giving into unfounded fears, but we also can’t risk public health either.
The response so far to this global tragedy is unacceptable. We can do better.