By Charlotte Alter
October 24, 2014
IDEAS
Charlotte Alter is a national correspondent for TIME

As soon as New Yorkers learned that Dr. Craig Spencer, a volunteer Doctors Without Borders physician who had recently returned from West Africa, had been diagnosed with Ebola, panic set in. And as soon as people learned that he’d been bowling the night before, that panic appeared to turn to a kind of sick joke. #Ebowla starting making the rounds on Twitter and finally, there was something about Ebola that seemed kind of funny.

As the alarming details of Dr. Spencer’s New York adventure emerged—a heroic stint caring for the sick in Guinea, a flight home, and then later, a subway ride, a walk along the High Line, a meal at a restaurant, an Uber ride—the fact that he went bowling the night before checking himself into Bellevue Hospital, where he was isolated immediately, was the detail that has captured the collective imagination.

And just as quickly, that fact turned into a deluge of Twitter jokes, each one hoping to be funnier than the next.

One could argue that this was a group-think defense mechanism to distract ourselves from the horror of Ebola’s presence in America’s most populous city. As one tweeter put it:

But somewhere along the line, the tone changed. It stopped being about bowling and started being about Spencer and his character.

This is a guy who signed up to work with Doctors Without Borders, arguably one of the more difficult jobs in the world, to help strangers in one of the most dangerous health zones on the planet. If you found out a United States Marine was playing CandyCrush right before he got blown up by a landmine, would you be laughing then?

Some expressed a similar callousness toward Amber Vinson, the Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan and then flew—with approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—from Cleveland to Dallas.

Do people think Vinson wanted to catch Ebola? Thankfully, Vinson appears to have recovered from the virus, according to NBC.

Some of Spencer’s critics are saying that because he began to feel sluggish on Tuesday, he should have immediately stayed home. These must be people who have themselves never felt a little worn out on a rainy day. Spencer told doctors he was taking his temperature twice a day as a precaution, and he did not yet have a fever on Wednesday, which means he was not symptomatic of Ebola.

Doctors Without Borders said Thursday night that Spencer had followed all recommended protocols for medical workers returning from the afflicted regions. “As long as a returned staff member does not experience any symptoms, normal life can proceed,” the organization said in a statement. “Self-quarantine is neither warranted nor recommended when a person is not displaying Ebola-like symptoms.”

While the Twitterverse is having a good chuckle over #ebowla, Spencer is in an isolation ward. Details of his condition have not yet been released, but it’s easy to imagine his psychological state. He must be terrified. He’s just spent a month watching what Ebola does to afflicted bodies, and now he’s alone, surrounded by hazmat suits, unsure if he’ll ever touch another human being. As Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly wrote in TIME:

Spencer’s fiancée, Morgan Dixon, is also in isolation at Bellevue. Imagine how she must be feeling. Yesterday was just a normal New York morning, but last night she and her fiancé went to sleep alone, and while it’s too soon to say for sure, there is the risk—and almost certainly, for them, the fear—that they might never see each other again.

So far, every single person, including Spencer, who has been treated for Ebola in the United States became infected because they risked their lives to help others. That’s true of Brantly and the health worker he worked with, Nancy Writebol. It was true of Thomas Eric Duncan, who’d carried a neighbor to the hospital in Liberia, where she was turned away and sent home. And it was true of the two Dallas health care workers who contracted the virus from Duncan before he died.

We should be praising all of them, not mocking them. And as collective fear has morphed into scorn, the response, on Twitter anyway, is without empathy—and is truly embarrassing.

Still, this Ebola joke got it right:

 

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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