These days we’ve got plenty of people advising us not to panic about the Ebola virus. Whether it’s those ubiquitous, generic “psychologists” who seem to pop up whenever there is some significant incident, or public health officials who want to reassure us that in the grand scheme of things Ebola is really not that big a deal, experts galore are urging us to control the inner demons that might otherwise transform us into a howling, red-eyed, torch-wielding mob that could end modern civilization as we know it.
The counseling to avoid panic is a dodge, of course, because no one is panicking. But by depicting concerns about how the Ebola issue has been poorly handled as indications of unfortunate mass hysteria, the people who have dropped the ball can deflect and avoid legitimate inquiry. Tsk, tsk! They’re the rational ones; the rest of us are excitable, poorly informed boobs who are just going to make matters worse. Like the policeman at the yellow tape of a disastrous crime scene, they just want us to move along.
Is it panicky and irrational to question how and why these circumstances could possibly occur? If you were one of the 132 unsuspecting passengers flying from Cleveland to Dallas with that nurse — people that officials are now trying to trace and presumably monitor — wouldn’t you think it was entirely legitimate to question the competence of the CDC and to ask whether it was following any kind of meaningful containment strategy?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the CDC has badly fumbled this situation, which means that it is failing at the principal reason for its existence in the first place. Demanding answers about how that happened is not a a sign of hysteria, but rather of requiring accountability by a government agency that simply has not done its job and, in the process, is exposing the people it is supposed to protect to unnecessary risk.
How big of a deal is this news? That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened. According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances. The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances: “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.” The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.
For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving. Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet. In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown. How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed? How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?
We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.
For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability. Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.
That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling. In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria. In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab. The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards. The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.
Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic. But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue: a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies. In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country. And those are just a few of the stories.
For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties. The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation: is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do? In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question.