We know how to combat Ebola effectively as the Firestone Plantation demonstrates. But, in its drive to multiply Ebola has an ally in our decaying culture and its abandonment of personal responsibility and imposition of penalties for violating cultural norms. Not all such actions result in the spread of the disease but the spread depends on a sufficient number of such actions. The question we should be asking is where we will find the will to properly combat this disease.
Let’s start with Patient Zero. He knew he had been exposed to Ebola and I strongly suspect he came to America to obtain the best care he could. Can’t blame him for that at all. I’d spend $3,400 to survive. However, he does not appear to be one of the Liberian 1 percenters, so the question arises, where did he get the sum, which must be an enormous expenditure to one of the 99 percent in a country whose average annual income is $450? Somebody else probably paid to bring him into the country illegally to gain access to our medical system. Who was it? Is anybody investigating to find out? Would any action be taken if we knew whom it was? We all know how unlikely that is. So the person or persons who have paid to import Ebola into the US will not be held accountable.
And Patient Zero was not held accountable by society for his action in deceitfully spreading the disease. He was wanted in Liberia for lying on his exit papers. We could have put him in a Hazmat suit and flown him back to Liberia to face charges. Instead we gave him an entire floor of a major metropolitan hospital. And I doubt he had insurance.
Then there’s Dr. (and I use the title advisedly) Nancy Snyderman. She goes to Liberia with her news crew and returns when one of them is infected with the disease. She agrees to a voluntary quarantine that she soon violates to go get takeout from her local restaurant. If I were in her shoes, the last place I would be is in a confined car with friends in public. I’d find a place to stay, away from my family, alone for three weeks, and eat take out delivered to my door step. But Nancy doesn’t need to do that. She can take the chance that she is exposing the nation to this virus to satisfy her culinary cravings. And what sanctions does she face? A State order of mandatory quarantine and a public apology. No doubt she’ll be back on the air at the end of the 21 days pontificating on the disease she might have spread.
Nurse 2 finds she has a fever. She calls the CDC to get permission to do what she suspects she shouldn’t. And she gets it! Just so she can go home on an airplane potentially exposing hundreds to the disease. Do you want someone who exercises this kind of judgment making literal life and death decisions for you? And who gave her permission to fly? Why is that person still employed at the CDC? Do they not take this outbreak seriously?
Finally there is Dr. Frieden. Clearly his agency failed to prepare the nation’s health care system to deal with this crisis. And now his risible statements about the situation are making him the Baghdad Bob of Ebola. He has become ineffective as a public leader and his continued presence serves to increase panic, not inspire confidence. But he continues in office.
These are all individuals making decisions that they think are in their best interest. And because they anticipate no penalty for violating societal norms.
This prevalence of irresponsibility did not happen overnight. For 80 years we have been creating a culture where the few do not have to bear the burden for their actions or chance events. Instead the burden is spread lightly on the many so that the few can have security. This can work as long as the few are few and the security is provided mainly for chance events. But as more of the few are protected from their actions and more become members of the few, the system creates moral hazard and a resulting decline of personal responsibility. As we have become rich and secure we have become more compassionate, a luxury we can afford as we can do so with other people’s money.
Strauss & Howe posit that each Civic generation must overcome a challenge that threatens the very existence of the nation. Having overcome the challenge, the generation is revered for its courage. However, the Civics are led to success by a Prophetic generation that makes the decisions upon which success depends. Though the Greatest Generation did the fighting and dying in World War II, it was the Missionary Generation that made the decisions to defeat Germany first, demand unconditional surrender, and totally mobilize the economy in support of the war effort. These were not easy decisions and different decisions could have been made with much different costs and consequences.
I have often wondered what challenge my Millennial children, a Civic generation, would face. War in the Middle East is nasty, but ultimately a nuisance, not an existential threat. War with China seems unlikely and would be accidental and tragic like World War I, not existential like World War II. Ebola may be their challenge. And I fear for the leadership they will receive from their Boomer elders. Having lived as a compassionate culture that increasingly prefers not to hold individuals accountable for the actions Boomers may not have the strength to make the unpleasant decisions necessary to defeat Ebola. That seems to be the case so far. Both at the bottom, where individuals make decisions without consideration for their wider effects and at the top where the leaders a majority of us elect behave similarly. Ebola will not be defeated by compassion and selfishness. Perhaps Ebola will be the existential threat the Millenials must overcome. Will the Boomers provide the leadership?