The American Ebola Story

This is the App Store ranking history for an app called Plague Inc. It’s a game in which players design and deploy a disease into the world with the goal of infecting the entire planet — to win the game you must infect every country, no exceptions. The game has been around for a while — the CDC invited its creator to speak to the agency’s staff last year. The pretense, according to a CDC spokesperson: “Meeting with industry leaders is a great way to learn more about reaching new audiences through mobile apps.” The game’s sales spiked on October 1st, immediately after the hospitalization of Thomas Duncan in Dallas. Ebola felt suddenly close for Americans, captivating our imaginations. So we downloaded an Ebola game.

This may have been the moment when the American’s public’s interest in Ebola went from real but removed to real and urgent; this was also the moment that television coverage of the disease took on a new and ugly form. Not that it was particularly great before: The earlier faraway-Ebola narrative played up the gruesome details of the disease while simultaneously assuring viewers that its spread could be blamed on infrastructure weaknesses and destructive superstitions in affected countries, problems that were characterized as uniquely African (or, at least, not American). Experts would file through the TV studios, repeating their mantras: No contact, no spread. Don’t touch dying patients, follow the rules, and you’ll be fine.

Now that people are paying attention to cable news for breaking updates about a domestic disease, as opposed to swashbuckling warzone-style coverage of a foreign disease, the tone has changed. I watched a series of segments yesterday, on CNN, in which the hosts’ sole concern was to assign blame: Had the hospital broken protocol at any point in treating Thomas Duncan, leading to the infection of a nurse? Had there been even more protocol breaches in the course of her hospitalization? Who can we get fired for the appearance and spread of this natural pathogen? Heads must roll! It was like a Fox News segment about Benghazi, circa election 2012. There were expert guests, but they weren’t delivering any advice, condescending or otherwise. They seemed a out of their elements. In the studio where they had previously been tasked with explaining the origins and spread of an unfamiliar disease that has been devastating for thousands of people, they were now tasked with assigning responsibility and guilt in a single case.

This is something that the disaster movies don’t quite get right when they show imagined news segments in the background, updating viewers about progress of whatever horrible event, with anchors cautiously then nervously then urgently update viewers on what’s happening in the world: The real versions of these clips would be confusing and worthless. They would only distract from the plot.