I got on a plane the other night. A woman sat down next to me. She ordered a Bloody Mary from the flight attendant and began talking loudly on her cell phone.
Then she sneezed. Again and again.
And again and again.
I felt some moisture on my hand. Having caught many a cold from plane travel, I instinctively wanted to do something, but there was nowhere to go. So I pulled the collar of my jacket up over my cheek, in a rather lame attempt to guard from sucking in germs.
Realizing how it looked, I let it drop.
Next thing I know, the woman is all but screaming into her cell phone, “Can you believe this? The guy next to me is trying to cover his mouth ’cause I sneezed. Get over it, dude. Whatever. Yeah. … What’s his problem?”
She continued this way, so loud, that finally I looked over and said, “You know, I’m right here.”
She made an obnoxious remark.
“Don’t you have any manners?” I asked.
“I have plenty of manners,” she declared, then slurped more of her Bloody Mary and continued her blaring phone conversation.
We’re poised to overreact
When I got home, I still was shaking my head over her behavior, how someone sneezing like a sprinkler can think the person on the receiving end is being rude. But maybe, I thought, I acted insensitively. Maybe she was insulted that I was worried about catching her germs.
Then I had a different thought.
Imagine if Ebola were involved.
Lately, all you hear about is the Ebola virus. We hear how a traveler from Africa came to Texas having lied about his infection, and died in a Dallas hospital, and who knows if he infected someone else? We hear how a woman in Spain felt sick and went to a hospital and was sent back home — despite saying she had been exposed to an Ebola patient. And days later, she was diagnosed with the disease herself.
We hear every kind of worst-case scenario, and the slightest spread of Ebola is now national news, 24/7.
And it doesn’t take much to imagine what our country could turn into if it really became a problem.
After all, consider what happened following Sept. 11. Although the likelihood of another immediate terrorist airplane attack was slim, our entire way of traveling was turned on its ear for years. Countless new rules, precautions, staff, safeguards, warnings and — let’s be honest — suspicions took root.
Can you imagine if even a small outbreak of Ebola took place in an American city? Would the whole country be wearing masks? Would body temperature gauges be the next thing every traveler had to pass through? Would blood transfusions come to a halt? Would people demand their doctor’s offices be sterilized?
And how do you think a sneezing passenger would be dealt with — especially one who told others to “get over it”?
A trailer for a movie
Of course, the truth is a long way from this. Do you know how many people actually have died from Ebola in western Africa, hotbed of the latest Ebola activity? Before I answer, take a guess, based on the hysteria. Does it feel like 100,000? Maybe 50,000?
Try 4,000. That’s a lot of people. But it’s a 10th of how many Americans die of flu-related issues in a bad year. Yet we yawn when reminded to get a flu shot.
The fact is Ebola can’t be spread by sneezing. It is not always fatal. Scientists are working on vaccinations right now. And the Centers for Disease Control estimates that if 70% of Ebola patients are treated properly, this latest epidemic could end.
But most people only hear the word “Ebola” — and our media do the rest. Right now, Ebola is hot, and there’s a “first” (the first recorded case of Ebola in America). News cynics say if you have one example it’s a story and three examples it’s a national trend — so be prepared to feel as if we’re living through a screening of “Contagion.”
We have some of the best doctors and scientists in the world. And better disaster preparation than most countries. But thanks to our news cycle, and our tendency to sensationalize, the one thing we spread faster than anyone is fear.
And since tens of thousands around the world are likely to get this disease before it’s under control, that fear will have no problem spreading.
I just hope we contain our emotions as well as the virus. Otherwise, pretty soon, the sneezing passenger next to me won’t be sipping a Bloody Mary and groaning, “Can you believe this guy?” She’ll be too busy being escorted off the plane by men in hazmat suits.