The Ebola response is suffering from too much politics

Posted at 6:20 PM, Oct 16, 2014

Check out Shepard Smith of Fox News talking about Ebola on his show Thursday afternoon and you’ll get a sense where we’re going here.

Smith’s calm and reasonable talk came just at a time when you might be thinking about the overwrought Ebola coverage and commentary being trafficked in the media, including on his own network. 

But let’s drill down on the part of this video that starts at about 1:55, Smith dumps a heap of context on his viewers helping to explain why they’re hearing so much screeching from politicians about Ebola.

Of course: The midterm elections are just two-and-a-half weeks away. And to put it bluntly, these people can’t help themselves.

“There’s a long tradition of politicians and preachers, any other kind of populists and demagogues, exploiting crises to their own end but creating a lot of harm in the process,” Dr. Emmanuel D’Harcourt, senior health director for the International Rescue Committee, said on The Takeaway public radio program Thursday. (Disclosure: I’m the show’s Washington correspondent.)

That tradition is alive and well as the U.S. confronts what is, as of this writing, two cases of domestic transmission of Ebola, both in health care workers.

How much harm our politicians and demagogues manage to cause between now and Nov. 4 remains to be seen.

The risk, of course, is hysteria and its evil cousin, panic. What is now confined to a couple Ebola cases in health care workers can quickly balloon into school boycotts, travel freezes and runs on overstretched hospitals if the public’s perceptions don’t stay proportional to the threat.

And incendiary campaign ads like this one don’t help.

That’s from the liberal independent expenditure group TheAgendaProject, and it’s designed to graft the fear of hazmat suits, unseen infection and certain death right onto Republican candidates who supported domestic spending cuts over the last two years.

There’s a lot to argue about on the merits as to whether public health agencies like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health should have their budgets reduced.

But there is absolutely no evidence that any of the missteps at CDC or at hospitals in Dallas where workers were infected had anything to do with their funding.

Even CDC’s own director told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday that the agency was adequately funded to meet its responsibilities right now. But that hasn’t stopped several Democratic candidates, or their allied outside groups, from running ads similar to the one above.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates, as Smith said on Fox, are keen to paint Democrat-in-Chief President Obama as incapable of leading.

Republican surrogates, including Fox News host and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, are busy urging viewers to doubt federal public health officials on the basis that they’re federal.  “Ask yourself,” Huckabee urged viewers this week while discussing Ebola, “do you really trust the government?”

You’re unlikely to see that kind of undermining when the government employees in question are in the military. Never mind that the CDC can only recommend actions to hospitals, not enforce them. Hospitals and medical practice are regulated almost exclusively by the states, and CDC’s expertise is mostly advisory.

And for other GOP candidates, Ebola is a perfect opportunity to show that Democrats are feckless. The White House, and CDC officials, are reluctant to recommend banning inbound flights from affected West African countries.

One reason is a fear that hampering such travel will impede the critical and urgent work of trying to contain a true and dire West African Ebola. The second, perhaps more salient reason is that they don’t think it will work.

Ban flights from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and you’ll still see travelers entering from these countries via countless other hubs in Europe and Asia, officials told lawmakers Thursday.

The better strategy is to do what authorities are doing: screen travelers in those three countries before they get on planes to fly anywhere else.

Never mind the experts, because the election-month politicians already have decided that continued air travel directly from West Africa proves President Obama can’t lead.


One after the other GOP lawmakers have blasted Democrats for the lack of a travel ban, but they’re not alone. Independent Kansas Senate candidate Greg Orman did the same in his debate with incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts on Wednesday night.

And many go a step further, calling for the Obama administration in their ads and debates to “seal the border” to keep Ebola out.  “We've got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border, we need to seal the border and secure it," said North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Tom Tillis last week in his debate against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagen.

If that argument sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one you heard in response to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the same one you heard when thousands of migrant children were turning up at the Texas border over the summer from Central America.

It’s a proxy for conservative demands on immigration policy, and has nothing to do with how to appropriately respond to a novel infectious disease like Ebola.

Demagoguery is part of the politician’s DNA, so what’s the real danger here? Part of it is that it can drive those in power to direct resources at the most visible—but not necessarily the most effective—responses.

Government officials are now taking the temperatures of all passengers arriving from affected West African countries to five major U.S. airports.

That’s a visible show of activity that politicians of both parties demanded and that you can really feast your eyes on. “Almost completely useless,” one federal health official told me under the condition that the official not be identified. “It’s a form of ‘doing something’ that you can see.”

And of course that means that whatever resources—planning, personnel, money—being spent on the screenings isn’t being spent somewhere else.

No one expects politicians not to try and win their high-stakes elections. And pointing out the record of your opponents is certainly fair game. But Americans are being asked to elect not just senators and representatives November 4th, but leaders.

And when it comes to a potentially dangerous but controllable infectious disease, real leaders don’t fan panic or try to profit from it. They use their microphones and their authority to prevent it so that our trained professionals can do their jobs.

Meanwhile, hopefully voters can take that deep breath Shepard Smith lead his segment with and ask themselves another question: “Who has a stake in my fear?” 

Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.