aNewDomain — If Ebola spreads, it’ll be Ronald Reagan’s fault, says our political commentator Ted Rall. Here’s why.
What were they thinking?
What goes through the mind of a nurse who knows she was exposed to one of the world’s deadliest diseases when she decides to board a passenger jet carrying hundreds of men, women and children? Why would a lab technician who handled body fluid samples from the first American Ebola patient to have died head off on a cruise?
Obviously we’re talking about colossal errors in judgment, both on the part of the globetrotting Dallas hospital employees as well as their employer. You can imagine the internal dialogue of the two workers: “If I’m not symptomatic, I’m just fine and I can’t spread Ebola, so why put my life on hold?”
One can only guess why the hospital administration didn’t quarantine anyone and everyone who might have been exposed to Ebola. Then there’s the CDC and the Obama administration. Was the president too busy golfing to understand the public health, not to mention the political, consequences of not taking this threat seriously?
But there’s a broader point here. While incompetence, cluelessness and general stupidity played their parts in the potential spread of Ebola in the West, what we are seeing is a reflection of the triumph of individualism over self-sacrifice in the interest of the public good.
There has always been a push-pull between self-interest and general interest in American society, but the Reagan years marked a significant shift in favor of selfishness.
For the first time in memory, a president argued that everyone benefits when everyone person is what’s best for them as individuals. And for the most part, that attitude has taken root in the form of public policies, changes in the tax code, and more subtly in the millions of individual decisions Americans take every day.
The message comes straight from the top: we are looking out for ourselves, not for you. From CEOs who pay themselves seven-figure salaries even as they lay off thousands of workers, to companies who refuse to hire enough staff – again, so that CEOs can get seven-figure salaries – to politicians who don’t even pretend to care about their constituents, only about their own careers and reelection, the message has been shouted, and received by the rest of us loud and clear, that each and every one of us is in our own little boat. We are not in this together.
So when a worker – no doubt underpaid – saves up for a long-awaited vacation cruise, you can be damn sure that she is going to go. After all, it’s not like the hospital or the CDC would compensate her for staying home and refund the cruise. When another worker – no doubt overworked and underpaid as well – is due for a trip back to Cleveland to visit her family, and the CDC says that almost certainly it would probably be maybe okay to go, she’s going to carry on. Business as usual, Ebola exposure threat be damned.
The two hospital employees here are not bad people. The nurse checked with the CDC; the lab technician voluntarily quarantined herself in her cabin. But they are lacking a fundamental willingness to subordinate their desires – in this case, to go on vacation – to the needs of the general public.
This is what happens when a society elevates individualism.
Based in New York, Ted Rall is a Pulitzer finalist who is best known for his nationally syndicated political essays and cartoons. He is also a seasoned war correspondent, author and senior commentator here at aNewDomain. Follow him @tedrall.