A few days ago, officials at Howard R. Yocum Elementary School in Maple Shade Township, New Jersey, took it upon themselves to play doctor and label two incoming students from an Ebola-free country as a potential Ebola risk to their entire student body.
Stop and let the absurdity of that statement sink in.
It all began when the Yocum Elementary nurse sent a letter to staff members informing them that two new students from Rwanda (a country in East Africa) would soon be arriving at the school. Citing a Center for Disease Control recommendation that all healthy people arriving in the U.S. from Ebola affected areas be monitored for symptoms for twenty-one days (a medical recommendation that didn’t even apply to this case, but one she somehow chose to employ), she acknowledged that while Rwanda is not a country with an Ebola outbreak, she was “taking precautions as per the Burlington County Health Department guidelines [and would be] taking the students’ temperature three times a day for twenty-one days.”
So, by her logic, it would appear the Burlington County Health Department guidelines encourage medical professionals to just arbitrarily decide what diseases run rampant throughout different parts of the world.
I’m not implying this nurse is a bad person. But boy does she lack sound judgment. At what point did she think making this fictitious link between these new students and the Ebola virus was a good idea? Did she really believe it wouldn’t get back to the parents of the student body and cause a paranoid uproar before getting picked up by multiple news outlets thirsty to capitalize upon the new and sexy fear-mongering topic of the month? And at any point, did she stop to think about what she would be subjecting this poor family to; a family that had taken every precaution to ensure the physical safety and health of their children both in Africa and the U.S.?
Perhaps if this nurse or any of the many outraged Yocum Elementary parents took a second to view a map — they’re totally free and available on the Internet — they might have noticed that Africa is a big freaking continent. So big, in fact, that you could fit over a dozen of the world’s major countries into it and still have room to spare. To be more specific, this family, while in Africa, was further away from the nearest Ebola-infected person than any single person in the U.S. is at any given moment. By this measure, shouldn’t all American students be quarantined out of risk of exposure to Ebola before worrying about these Rwandan children? And shouldn’t we apply this same policy to parents who haven’t vaccinated their kids against the flu, a virus that kills up to tens of thousands of people in the U.S. each year? To boot, Rwanda has closed its borders (as have many other countries) to anyone infected with Ebola. Last I checked, the U.S. is still sporting a happy-go-lucky come-on-in attitude in that department.
As a close friend of the family in question, I am appalled and heartbroken that Yocum Elementary actually had the audacity to announce that the parents had finally “elected” to keep their kids home during the twenty-one day Ebola incubation period, as if the school really gave them much of a choice. This is nothing short of a heroic missionary family who selflessly served others in Rwanda for the past two years, existing on meager means just so they could be a living, breathing presence to those much less fortunate than many of us here in the U.S.; a family that will eventually have to declare, upon their return to Africa, that they are coming from an Ebola-infected country. We should be rolling out the red carpet for families like this upon their brief rest stops back home instead of casting hurtful and inaccurate stigmas based on zero facts. Simply put, the vitriol my dear friends have experienced is nothing short of bullying by a bunch of clueless and ignorant parents and media sensationalists.
Due to the media firestorm, Yocum Elementary just recently issued a bit of a mea culpa, pledging to “safeguard” the two new students upon their arrival and apologizing for the “unintended consequences” of its message that only served to instill fear and conflict. It remains to be seen how well the school follows through, but I can only hope and pray they make good on their pledge to these two amazing children who didn’t deserve this treatment.
It’s no secret that Ebola is a very hot topic in the western world given that the U.S. is only now seeing its first few cases in its history. We’re a country of me-first self-protectionists, the facts be damned. Plus, with a zombie movie releasing every six months or so, we’re definitely starting to get programmed to imagine every kind of viral outbreak wiping out civilized society as we know it, leaving behind nothing but flesh-eating mongrels amidst a few scattered survivors. But the reality is we Americans are still way more likely to die from overeating, smoking cigarettes, or driving our cars than from Ebola. In the mean time, we ought to get the global Ebola story straight so that no more families from nations that have never known a single Ebola outbreak will be unfairly tried, convicted, and sentenced in the court of public ignorance.
Also, learning basic geography never hurts.
Alan Atchison is a Contributing Writer to The Rogue. He is a Senior Publications Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania), where he also earned a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.