An abundance of fear

Flu and pneumonia kill more than 53,000 people annually in this country. Diabetes takes 74,000. Another 85,000 die from Alzheimer’s.

Yet news that two nurses who worked closely with one man who died from Ebola in the isolation ward of a hospital in Dallas, Texas, now have the disease is provoking irrational responses bordering on panic.

Breathless and often half-true Ebola coverage on 24-hour television news networks has stoked the fires of rumor and unnecessarily frightened millions of people, leading many to conclude that the threat is much worse than it actually is.

Take for instance the action last week by the school board in Strong, which suspended a teacher with pay for 21 days merely for having traveled to Dallas to attend an education conference. 21 days is the recommended period to observe someone to confirm whether or not they may have the disease.

At no time was that teacher closer than 10 miles to the hospital where the Ebola patient was in a special isolation ward.

The press release from the school district explained that officials acted out of “an abundance of caution” after several parents expressed concerns that they had not been informed of the teacher’s travel. In fact, news that the teacher was going to the conference was never a secret before, during or after the trip.

In all, nearly 50 Maine educators attended the meeting in Dallas. Only in Strong did it provoke such drastic and ill-advised action.

What was done transcends any notion of caution or decency. It suggests that the board surrendered to pressure from those overwhelmed by fear. Those concerns could have been addressed with an abundance of reason as well as an abundance of courage on the part of board members.

Rather than quarantine a teacher, the board could have provided the information needed to calm parents’ fears or brought in trusted local experts to explain the situation. Instead, the board shirked their responsibility by taking an action that, ultimately, only rewards ignorance and fear, rather than wisdom and enlightenment. What sort of lesson has this taught to the children of that community?

Dallas has a population akin to the entire state of Maine. How would folks here react if someone from another state suggested anyone visiting here should be quarantined for no good reason? Sadly, the school board in Strong has given those, who might paint Maine as a backwards and uneducated place, additional ammunition for their arguments.

The term “abundance of caution” is used to describe all manner of actions related to stopping Ebola, no matter how half-baked or superstitious. That term should not become a skirt to hide behind to justify ill-informed or hurried actions.

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