The “Avoiding Panic” Dodge

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.

We shouldn’t fall for this sham in this case, and should insist on getting answers to some entirely reasonable questions.  Ebola isn’t a phantom menace; it is a deadly disease, and in the latest outbreak in West Africa it has had a mortality rate of 70 percent, according to  the World Health Organization.  In America, we have established the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention precisely to deal with the enormous risks posed by such dread infectious diseases. When a man infected with Ebola reached America and received treatment in Dallas before dying, it appears that the CDC and the Dallas hospital that provided the treatment were unprepared to deal with the case in a way that ensured effective containment of the disease.  First one nurse, and then another, were found to be infected, and now we learn that the second nurse was permitted to board an airplane when she was exhibiting a low-grade fever that is one of the first signs of the virus.

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.

The (Potential) Wages Of Hubris

Today the Texas Department of State Health Services announced that a preliminary test indicates that an American health care worker has tested positive for Ebola.  The worker was involved in treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the West African man who came to the United States after being infected with the Ebola virus and died of the disease last week.  The preliminary results indicating the health care worker has Ebola will be subject to confirmatory testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This news of transmission of Ebola in America is troubling in and of itself, but it is especially alarming when coupled with the fact that a Spanish nurse who also was involved in treating an Ebola victim contracted the disease.  The Spanish nurse’s infection is attributed to “human error” — her alleged failure to follow strict protocols designed to prevent transmission of the dread disease — but there is no explanation, yet, for why the Texas health care worker may have contracted the disease.

Perhaps the Texas health care worker also made a “human error,” or perhaps the world health care authorities don’t know as much about how to prevent the spread of this strain of Ebola as they think they do.  Could the CDC, the World Health Organization, and other health care entities have experienced a bit of hubris about their ability to deal with this disease, and could we now be learning that they were overconfident about their understanding of Ebola and how it is transmitted?  Even if the new cases are due entirely to “human error,” the fact that treatment protocols are so challenging that trained health care workers can fail to comply with them should give us all pause.

We’ve all heard about epidemic scenarios — read Stephen King’s The Stand if you want a realistic and chilling depiction of what might happen if the genie of a highly contagious disease gets out of the containment bottle — and Ebola seems like exactly the kind of devastating disease that could cause such nightmares to come true.  The fact that health care workers are being infected should cause us to redouble our efforts to prevent people who might be infected from entering the country in the first place, and to dramatically increase the precautions taken when we identify a person stricken with the disease.

No doubt we will be getting assurances from the federal government and the CDC that the situation is well under control.  Given what is happening, I’m not quite ready to credit those assurances just yet.  Let’s see some actual positive results first.

Misreading Our Mood

We’re less than a month away from the election — the latest in a string of elections that liberals and conservatives alike want us to treat as the most important election in modern history! — and I wonder how well our political classes even understand the average voter.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times about how an increasingly unpopular President Obama has been “benched” by his party capsulized the issue for me.  The article says that the President hopes, once again, to “pivot” to the economy and give a series of speeches about jobs initiatives and a “clean energy economy,” but his advisers are frustrated because the American people are worried, instead, about a possible Ebola outbreak and the terrorist threat posed by ISIS.  One of the operatives said:  “When people are jumping a fence at the White House and Ebola is in Dallas it’s hard to get a message through.”

No kidding!

And therein lies the problem.  The political types dream of rolling out more wishful policy proposals in grand speeches; they treat real-world problems like Ebola, ISIS, and porous borders as irritants that serve only to distract from the more crucial policymaking process.  The American people, on the other hand, see Ebola, ISIS, and White House security as precisely what the federal government should focus on as its most important priorities.

Epidemics and terrorism are beyond the control of the Average American; they are the big, scary problems that only the government is equipped to handle.  When the big problems arise, we want to hear from clipped, hyper-competent people who have developed careful plans to tackle the problem — not expessions of regret that the deadly plague and the beheadings are preventing politicians from talking about the latest solar energy initiative.

The Times article plays into an important undercurrent in our society.  We know that the governmental types are eager to tell us what to eat, drink, and think.  They want us to accept their assurances that Ebola will never make it to our shores, and then when a man infected with Ebola somehow arrives in Dallas they expect us to believe new assurances that things are nevertheless under control.  Not surprisingly, such statements are greeted with increasing skepticism — and when articles indicate that the President and the politicos are straining at the leash to put Ebola and ISIS behind them and move on to debate about a “clean energy economy,” the skepticism grows, and grows, and grows.  In that context, why should we view statements that Ebola or ISIS are under control as anything other than a convenient effort to sweep the big, scary, problems under the rug so the policymaking games can be played?

It’s not unreasonable for us to want or demand a federal government that understands that the big, scary problems are its most important job, not some mere distraction.  How many voters will enter the voting booths next month with that thought in mind?

Ebola On A Plane, And In The U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight.  The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20.  He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.

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.

First Ebola, Then Zombies

The news about Ebola in west Africa is dreadful.  A new assessment of the outbreak by the World Health Organization forecasts that the number of people infected and killed by the disease may increase dramatically and become “endemic” in that region — which means that it would never be fully eliminated in countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  The WHO also says the death rate for those infected with Ebola is 70 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that the Ebola epidemic may infect 1.4 million people in west Africa by the end of January.  Multiply that number by the 70 percent death rate and you see an enormous human disaster if steps to control the disease don’t work.  Even worse, with each new infected person, there is an increased risk that the devastating disease will break out of west Africa and penetrate into the world at large — and if that happens the forecasted numbers will become astronomical.

And then there is this story from Liberia, which reports that two women killed by Ebola have mysteriously risen from the dead.  The two were about to be buried when they returned to life, causing panic in their communities.  The news report of the incident helpfully notes:  “Since the Ebola outbreak in Nimba County, this is the first incident of dead victims resurrecting.”  The report is silent on whether the two women have since exhibited the signs of undead behavior — like staggering around and munching on the brains of the living — that are familiar to any fans of zombie movies.

Of course, under these circumstances jokes about a zombie apocalypse aren’t very funny.  The zombie story just highlights the fact that west Africa is totally ill-equipped — culturally, medically, and scientifically — to deal with an outbreak of a highly lethal contagious disease.  When you combine superstitious people, the absence of doctors who can reliably diagnose and treat the disease and determine whether its victims are actually dead, an insufficient supply of bodysuits, decontamination supplies, medication, and other necessary supplies, and inadequate sanitation and means of disposing of the bodies of those killed by Ebola, you have created an ideal setting for an uncontrolled epidemic.

A recent New York Times story about one overworked gravedigger in Freetown, Sierra Leone paints a bleak picture and powerfully makes the case that the Ebola outbreak may have reached a terrible tipping point.  We had all better hope that — zombies or not — the efforts to control the disease are effective.

The Alarm About Ebola

Africa seems very far away to most Americans.  In contrast to, say, Europe, we don’t know most of the names of the countries, we don’t learn much about the geography of the African continent, and we tend to hear about it only when a particularly bloodthirsty dictator or terrorist organization has committed another outrage.  The recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire in west Africa, though, is a story that should command the attention of Americans and everyone else in the world.

Ebola, which is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, is one of the most deadly diseases in the world.  It’s a virus that wreaks havoc with human blood systems and immune responses, and in this most recent outbreak it has infected more than 2,000 people and has killed more than half of them.  In fact, in past outbreaks Ebola has been so deadly that it has restricted itself:  people who were infected became symptomatic and died before they had a chance to infect other people.  This time, though, the progress of the disease seems to be slower, somehow, and infected people have more of an opportunity to infect others.  For this reason, no one is quite sure how many people have been infected with Ebola in this latest outbreak — or, more importantly, exactly where they are.  That’s one of the things that should concern everyone.

There are other points of concern, too.  The deadliness of the disease has caused a breakdown of the health care systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where this current outbreak is centered.  Due to fear of Ebola, many health care workers have fled their hospitals — which not only leaves Ebola untreated, but also opens the door to the spread of other diseases like malaria that are found in the region.  Even Doctors Without Borders is having trouble finding people to treat Ebola patients.

In addition, this latest Ebola outbreak has occurred in a place where Ebola has never been seen before.  The virus somehow traveled hundreds of miles, from central Africa to west Africa, without any human outbreaks along the way; researchers think it might have been carried by swarms of bats.  Now it is found in much more densely populated areas and — here is a key point — areas that have airports that can carry passengers to huge international airports where they can connect to flights that might carry them just about anywhere in the world.  Combine that fact with the more slow-moving nature of this strain of Ebola, and you can see how this disease could spread, uncontrolled, to a much larger geographic area. 

And here’s the last concerning thing:  this deadly disease outbreak is raging on a continent that has been home to chaos, tribal genocide, rampaging terrorist groups, and other forms of social disorder in recent times.  In Monrovia, Liberia, “looters” recently attacked a temporary holding center for Ebola patients, ransacked it, and ran off with blood-soaked sheets and mattresses.  That troubling incident raises the question of whether they weren’t “looters” at all, but rather members of a terrorist group — such as Boko Haram — who are trying to acquire a means to spread the disease as part of their savage campaign to establish control over territory and kill anyone who doesn’t adopt their religious and political views.  That is truly a frightening scenario.

So this story manages to combine an incredibly deadly disease, a mass outbreak, swarms of virus-carrying bats, health system breakdowns, and potential terrorist concerns in one appalling package.  Yes, I’d say this is a time when we all should be paying attention to news from Africa.