Let’s be honest, what small town doesn’t love a little drama? A little controversy? The pot stirred? Something to keep the conversation hot as another cold winter approaches?
Normally, there’s nothing my hometown of Fort Kent, Maine loves so much as some good gossip. But the media circus that has recently engulfed our isolated community of about 2,500, on Maine’s northern border with Canada, has been a lot for even the most seasoned gossips to handle. While the locals respect and admire the service that nurse Kaci Hickox has provided to Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, many are a bit less enthusiastic about her refusal to abide by a state-imposed quarantine to ensure that she has not been exposed to anything that could bring such a horrific disease to a small community with limited resources for fighting such an outbreak.
Let me first say that I understand that Kaci Hickox is extremely unlikely to pose any threat to those around her. She is asymptomatic, and as numerous authorities on the issue have vigorously insisted (including the Centers for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine), there is no scientific basis for ordering quarantine for asymptomatic healthcare workers returning from West Africa. Kaci Hickox, at this time, is not contagious.
But it seems to me that what Kaci Hickox is, is her own worst PR headache.
In her defense, her actions over the last week are understandable. She has been through an exhausting, emotionally draining experience that few of us could ever imagine—and that was before she touched down in Newark. What has happened to Hickox since she revealed to airport personnel where she had been and what she had been doing would certainly anger, frustrate and demoralize any of us.
She was detained for hours at the airport and interrogated repeatedly, sometimes, according to her account, by people who didn’t bother to introduce themselves. She was tired and hungry from a transatlantic flight and given a granola bar and water for her troubles. After four hours of this, her temperature, recorded by a forehead scanner, registered 101. Her doctors at University Hospital in Newark would later concur: her ‘fever’ was the likely result of being flushed and upset. At all other times during her confinement, Hickox’s body temperature was normal.
I imagine you know much of the rest of the story. Her ordered confinement, her vow to sue for the violation of her civil rights, the invitation from the eloquent humanitarian Gov. Chris Christie: “Whatever. Get in line.” Her eventual release and escort back to Maine, where she first went into hiding in an attempt to avoid the networks that had already schlepped cameras and crew hours through the Maine wilderness to the town where the road ends, to her rural home in Fort Kent, ME.
But here is where my empathy for Hickox’s story is tested. Not because she disagrees with the recommended 21-day home quarantine (Yes, “science,” I understand), but for her combative insistence on the rightness of her actions and for her repeated threats at litigation. For what I perceive as a failure to defend her laudable and legitimate interests while also addressing the concerns of the community with a bit more sensitivity.
The unavoidable fact is, whether there is a scientific basis for it or not, many people are concerned for their own safety and for the safety of their loved ones. Concerned for the “what ifs” in this situation which, while unlikely, are, as of this writing, still possible. In the absence of any guarantees, these concerns are understandable. Even if they should not be what drives policy—even if, in an ideal world, we could reason them away—it is not unreasonable to expect Hickox to acknowledge the feelings of the community when she makes choices about where she goes, and when.
Having lived now in another culture for 2 years, it’s hard not to see the situation as characterized by a very American attitude that my individual rights are more important than the community’s peace of mind, that I will insist on my individual rights whatever the social consequences. As someone in my town said to a journalist friend of mine, “She’s holding this small Valley town hostage to a point of principle.” I think it’s worth asking why doctors returning to other countries are willing to submit to quarantine, but it becomes a civil rights battle in our country.
At the end of August, a Norwegian newspaper reported on the experiences of a doctor who had just returned home after serving with Doctors Without Borders in Liberia. He quietly quarantined himself at his family cabin for three weeks, waiting out the incubation period.
No drama, no fuss, no lawsuits, no government. Just simple concern for the community around him in an uncertain time.
After all the fear that the media have stirred up around ebola (yes, even in Norway), including an article linked to the one cited above that ran with the headline “WHO: Ebola epidemic can infect 20,000 people,” is it honestly so surprising that people are not putting aside their fear so easily?
What’s more, as Hickox has witnessed firsthand the hell that so many others in less economically-developed parts of the world live every day, I have a hard time accepting the idea that home quarantine is a serious civil or human rights issue. That seems pretty insulting to the people who experience oppression (and global indifference) in their lives every day, circumstances that endure for much longer than 21 days. While we often discuss in my BLS courses the unfairness of comparing or ranking oppressive situations, I also think if we throw around the term “civil rights violation” too liberally, it ceases to be taken seriously. It becomes just another media sound bite.
Yes, the situation is unfairly tough for Hickox because she is one of the early cases of her kind and states are still figuring out how to proceed. Yes, I support her demands that governors craft policies based on science and not fear, and that she be allowed reasonable freedoms, like her recent bike ride. But in the meantime, her situation is not Guantanamo Bay, and the current discourse has done little locally but escalate the drama and rhetoric, and, once again, distract us nationally from real human rights violations taking place every day.
My friend Julie Daigle, the local journalist mentioned earlier, said something that seemed to me very fair. “The thing is, she may in fact be making a point that needs to be made in the bigger picture, and in the long run, we may all be better off for her refusal to allow her behavior to be affected by the fears of those around her. But to castigate people for a very predictable response to having to face a sizable fear (again, regardless of how reasonable that fear is) and their clear understanding that she is choosing to ignore their fears is as demonizing an action as those seeking to cast her in the role of the witch.”
I understand Kaci Hickox’s anger. I understand that she feels that she has already given enough—and in all fairness, she has given far more than any of us. She’s right. At the same time, especially in a small community, it is sometimes better to be generous and patient with a difficult situation. Even when we’re right.
I think my main concerns are still valid—that this whole media circus is avoided in cultures where people just put the concerns of their neighbors first from the start. What do you think?