There's nothing like a case of a deadly virus in the nation's biggest media market to draw political demagogues out of the woodwork and send the media into a frenzy. That's what happened on Thursday when Dr. Craig Spencer, 33, of Harlem was diagnosed with Ebola.
Dr. Spencer lives on the fifth floor of a building on West 147th Street in Harlem, not far from where I live. News reports indicated Spencer often took the A train subway line, as do I. As far as I know, I may have passed Spencer on the train in the past week. But I'm not panicking. Even if I did pass by him, it's highly unlikely that I'm in any danger. That's because Ebola cannot be spread through casual contact and I'm far more likely to die of the flu this year than from Ebola.
Don't try telling that to the fear-mongers who want the scare the sense out of you. Start with Donald Trump, who took to Twitter on Thursday to blast the president for the first New York case. Trump said the Ebola case was "Obama's fault," called the president "incompetent" and demanded his resignation.
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss Trump as a clown if he had not also been the frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination just a few years ago. And far too many misguided politicians of both parties have been willing to support his idea of a travel ban from west Africa, even though experts warn it would do more harm than good.
But if Trump wants to critique the president's response to the situation, he should review his own words comparing Ebola to AIDS. "If you look at the AIDS epidemic, it started very small and then all of a sudden it grew and grew and we have to this day, a massive problem with that. This all started from a very, very small sample," he said recently.
He's right, but look at the difference in how the federal government responded to AIDS and how it's responding to Ebola. The first known cases of AIDS were documented in the summer of 1981, when the New York Times reported 41 people had been diagnosed with the unusual immune-deficiency virus.
More than a year after that shocking news story, almost 600 cases had been reported in the U.S., and yet President Reagan's chief spokesman laughed off questions about the growing health crisis during a White House press conference. "What's AIDS?" he joked. "I don’t have it. Do you?"
It took Reagan more than four years, until September 1985, before he finally even mentioned the word "AIDS" publicly, and then only in response to a question from a reporter at a press conference. But by that year, nearly 16,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and nearly half of them had died.
Americans suffered through a full presidential term of silence while thousands of our neighbors perished, and yet Donald Trump describes Ronald Reagan as the president he most admires and thinks President Obama should resign because one doctor in Manhattan was diagnosed with Ebola.
Never mind that President Obama has spoken several times about Ebola, canceled his travel plans to oversee the White House response, dispatched thousands of U.S. military personnel to west Africa to supply medical and logistical support, and appointed a top-level official to coordinate the administration's response. In Donald Trump's twisted logic, if one person with Ebola enters Gotham, the president himself did it.
Trump is always an easy target, but his public display of ignorance symbolizes larger problems in our politics of fear-mongering, disrespect for science, and selfish indifference to the suffering of outsiders.
Yes, we need to respond to Ebola, but that means we have to help the people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, not to blockade or stigmatize them. In today's global economy, all of us are interconnected. Yet, while one American has died of Ebola, more than 4,000 Africans have passed away while some of us pretended it wasn't our problem.
If we learned anything from the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, I hope we learned to stop spreading irrational fears, stop stigmatizing groups of people, and start doing something constructive to help those in need.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
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