Selflessness and Selfishness

Over the weekend I read the highly publicized account of the nurse who was detained under the new mandatory quarantine rules put in place by the state of New Jersey. On the one hand, I admire the nurse for the brave work she has done caring for Ebola victims in Africa.  On the other hand, I am mystified that someone so close to the crisis could be so clueless as to what reasonable precautions we should employ when dealing with people who have found themselves potentially exposed to this deadly virus.

Sadly, she is not alone. Over the past few weeks we have been treated to account after account of health care professionals who have been exposed to Ebola behaving in ways that put the general public at risk.  These same people who put themselves in danger by selflessly helping others have then through actions that could only be described as selfish, put other people at risk.

One nurse flies from Texas to Cleveland, knowing she had a fever and knowing that she had treated an Ebola victim. Even though CDC officials (in a moment of horrifying ineptitude) cleared her to fly, she should have known better.  She should not have exposed everyone she encountered on that trip to such a deadly virus, even if the risk of transmission is low.

The medical director for a major news network was seen at a popular restaurant while she was supposed to be under voluntary quarantine after a member of her camera crew tested positive for Ebola. Even though she ultimately tested negative for Ebola, the cavalier attitude she displayed by violating the quarantine and putting her fellow citizens at risk was extremely selfish.

Then a doctor who came back to New York after treating Ebola patients decides to ride the subway and go bowling all while he should have been adhering to a voluntary quarantine. A day after bowling he tested positive for Ebola.  The degree of recklessness he displayed is appalling.

So the nurse in New Jersey who felt that her civil rights were violated upon returning home has only her fellow health professionals to blame. I’ll be the first to admit that I am uneasy over the idea of mandatory quarantines.  But we have seen that voluntary quarantines do not work.  The very people who we would expect to be the most selfless and diligent in protecting us from exposure have shown that they are as selfish as the rest of us and will not stay at home if they decide there is something that they want or need to go out and do.

If this had been a more easily transmitted disease we would be in the midst of the greatest pandemic since the Spanish Flu. We failed to stop the disease from reaching America by refusing to stop travel from Ebola-affected nations.  We failed to effectively quarantine those who may have been exposed to the virus.

Tragically, the people failing us are those who should know better. What is the purpose of the CDC if not to react quickly and effectively to a crisis like this?  If they can’t handle this situation, which has been mercifully tame (at least in America), how on earth can we trust them to handle a virulent, highly transmittable viral outbreak?

And if our own health care professionals would dare to expose us to a deadly disease because they can’t wait 21 days to go bowling, how can we trust them to abide by any kind of voluntary quarantine? Where is the sense in risking your life to save Africans but not being willing to risk a little of your freedom upon your return to America so as to protect your fellow citizens from harm?  I just don’t understand how people can be so selfless in one instance and so selfish in another.