Be Not Afraid

We’re all going to die!  Today!  Or at least that is what one would think from listening to the “three P’s” — pundits, politicians, and personalities — talk about Ebola.  Although the danger must be taken seriously, it is not an imminent threat to the United States. Unfortunately, public figures have jumped on it as a tool to gain political advantage in some closely contested political campaigns.

I would expect the pundits and personalities to use any excuse to keep their name in front of the public, but I find it disappointing at best that politicians would use it for personal gain.  Whatever it takes, I suppose.  In my mind, however, this would seem to be an issue that should be bipartisan, or better yet non-partisan, as all Americans are concerned about the safety and well-being of our country.

While Congress certainly has oversight responsibilities and should utilize that power, it should be used for the common good and not to score political points.  Just like me, they may have their opinions but they do not have experience with this particular disease nor do they have any medical expertise.  They do, however, have the power to stir up the American public and to spread fear where none is warranted. Caution is warranted certainly, but not fear.  Unfortunately, fear ran rampant in the early days following the discovery of the disease in Dallas.

Perhaps the most over-used phrase in our current lexicon is “in an abundance of caution.”  In my day, it was called CYA — cover your “behind.”  That is, taking an action that you know is not necessary but is done anyway so that no one can say you did not take action.  My favorite in this case is the school district in Oklahoma that kept students and faculty out of school because some had been on the same cruise ship as a lab technician that worked on the case of the Liberian man who died.  She had already been tested and found to be Ebola free when the school district made the decision “in an abundance of caution.”  There is caution and there is also common sense.

Again, I am no expert, but the debate over whether to prohibit travelers from Africa to enter the United States seems to be a little over blown as well.  While I cannot argue that it would do no good, it also seems to me that since there are no direct flights at present from the impacted area of Africa to the United States, to be effective, we would have to isolate the United States from all incoming travelers.  I might also point out that for twenty-two years the United States would not issue visas and banned all travel into the country if a person had HIV/AIDS.  The ban was lifted in 2010.  To my knowledge, we did not eradicate HIV/AIDS by having the ban and there has been no dramatic increase in cases since the ban was lifted.  With Ebola, once you have it you cannot get re-infected and  are no longer contagious, a different case than HIV/AIDS.

What we have learned is that when the experts say you have to do everything perfectly while treating an Ebola patient, they mean perfectly.  Not “good enough.”  As the saying goes, it’s only a lot of work if you do it.  I suspect that around the country health care professionals have dramatically increased their training and awareness.  Things in the theoretical seem to have new importance when they move to reality.  Merely reading about guidelines is not the same as actually practicing them — and doing them perfectly.  That much we have learned.

Bottom line:  There have been exactly three cases that presented in the United States.  It is a serious disease that must be taken seriously, but let’s be serious rather than hysterical.  And to the political campaigns using this issue to create fear about immigration and other issues — just stop it!

A note on events in Canada yesterday:  I was saddened to see the attack on the Canadian war memorial and Parliament in Ottawa.  It served to underscore the unfortunate reality of our life today in fighting terrorism and the forces they unleash.  On a personal note, I visited Ottawa and the memorial and the Parliament building a few years back and was struck by the apparent lack of an overt presence of police and other security forces throughout the area.  I liked it.  I especially liked it in the context of our public buildings and monuments in this country being turned into fortresses.  I am sure that the Canadians will now reevaluate their security conditions and change their way of doing business.  I am saddened by that.  I recognize the reality of the world that we live in today and can offer no viable alternative.  But it still saddens me because the goal of terrorism is to change the way that society conducts itself, and in that regard the terrorists are winning.

Keeping Some Perspective

As a news junkie, especially political developments and political opinion pieces, it is sometimes easy for me to lose my perspective on just what is really important. When we are able to keep things in the right context, the news of the day over some political maneuver or another is really quite unimportant in the larger scheme of things. And sometimes it is just as important to remember how lucky we are to be living in the good ol’ US of A.

This was brought home to me yet again on Sunday night while watching a piece on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

Sunday night the program re-visited the “Lost Boys of Sudan” 12 years after the original report on their travails. The segment sought to catch up with the many young men airlifted to the United States to find out how they are getting along after living in the United States for many years. The catch-up piece originally aired on 31 March 2013 and was re-aired last Sunday (21 July). You may remember the lost boys — the roughly 5.000 children that left Sudan during that country’s murderous civil war to walk nearly 1,000 miles over the course of five years to refugee camps in Kenya. Extraordinary. And heart-breaking — their stories are incredible and many did not survive the journey.

What struck me was their unfailing optimism and faith that things would work out. In particular during the piece, one of the boys (now all men) was asked about how he and the others could keep going against such overwhelming odds. With a smile on his face, he replied that even though people called them the “lost boys” he knew that he wasn’t lost because God knew where he was. Even today, despite the fact that not every one of those airlifted to the United States was successful in his life here, all of those interviewed in the piece were uniformly optimistic and eternally grateful for the opportunity to come to our country.

Their story reminded me of my time in the naval service in the early 1980’s operating in the South China Sea (map) on transits between the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. On several different occasions we came upon single boatloads of Vietnamese refugees adrift at sea. Entire extended families and friends would load up a small boat (usually a wooden junk about 40 feet or so in length with 40 or 50 people of all ages and both sexes) and set out to sea in the hopes that a US Navy ship or a friendly merchant captain would spot them and pick them up. Many did not make it and are presumed lost at sea. Not every merchant captain was keen to pick them up either as it could become a significant bother to take care of them and because of the need to divert to an acceptable harbor to drop them off. Some of the ship’s Masters just looked the other way and kept going. Many did the right thing. US Navy ships always stopped — when we saw them. I often wonder how many we inadvertently passed in the night or in poor weather because we simply did not see them. (Small wooden boats don’t show up well on radar and in that part of the world there are nearly always numerous small fishing boats at sea so, without a visual cue, those on watch would have no idea that they were passing someone in need.)

Remember that the open sea is very much like the wasteland that the lost boys crossed — very little chance of getting food or water except what you bring with you. And like the lost boys, they were beset by many dangers stretching from terrible weather to pirates that would board the boats and take whatever (and whomever) they wanted with them. When we would find the refugee boats — and I need to point out that our mission was not to look for them, we would come across them purely by chance — they would be so grateful that it was gut wrenching. They had literally nothing, yet were indescribably happy knowing that they now had a chance at a better life.

Like some of the lost boys, some of those Vietnamese refugees made it to the United States. In my later years in the service, Sailors would report for duty on my ships that were Vietnamese and of an age and background where it was possible that I and my shipmates, or others like us, picked up their parents or even they themselves as children at sea those many years ago.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to leave their homeland like those in Sudan and to set off on a walk of unknown duration, or to put my family in a boat and head out to sea knowing that if the right ship did not find us, we would all perish. They had no way of knowing that they would survive, much less dare to hope that someday they would make it the USA. Yet, they all remained positive, put their faith in a higher power and are eternally grateful for what help they got along the way.

What a powerful statement about the hopeful and determined nature of mankind and a testament to the basic humanity that knows no racial, national or ethnic boundaries that so many of us exhibit when given the chance. What a powerful lesson about our nation and how lucky we truly are to be citizens in this land. Sometimes we just need to keep things in the right perspective.