Monday, October 6, 2014

The Politics of: Ebola

Seth Brundle: You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects... don't have politics. They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first... insect politician. Y'see, I'd like to, but... I'm afraid, uh...
Ronnie: I don't know what you're trying to say.
Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'm saying I - I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.
Ronnie: No. no, Seth...
Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'll hurt you if you stay.
-- The Fly (1986) 
The Ebola Outbreak
There is hopefully no need for any kind of exhaustive refresher on this: the deadly hemorrhagic fever Ebola is 'out of control' in West Africa (and now other places). It has a very high morality rate, is spread through infected fluids (you must be splashed with blood, vomit, etc.), and causes you, when infected, to bleed through every mucous membrane in your body. It's a horrible way to die--and people are dying. Here are a few more 'recent' points to keep in mind:

Okay, So: What Are The Politics?
The Politics of Ebola are the Politics of hurricane Katrina. In 2005, category 5 hurricane Katrina struck and obliterated much of New Orleans--overflowing the levies and becoming one of America's major natural disasters. In the aftermath, although there were failures at all levels in the response, President Bush was especially marked for having failed in his office to see the nation through the turmoil. While the specifics of the response were complicated (FEMA red-tape was a nightmare, the New Orleans flood strategy was inadequate despite a decently well executed evacuation plan, and the National Guard forces were stretched thin due to overseas deployment) the over-all impression?
"Katrina showed [Bush] is incompetent," says Howard Dean, outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Before Katrina, everyone, including America's friends and enemies, believed if something awful happened in the world, you could call in the Americans and they'd fix it." The government response to the hurricane, which devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, ruined that reputation, Dean argues.
For a party for whom 'Acts of God' is not just insurance terminology, it was especially frustrating to see this land at Bush's feet at the hands of what was seen as a left-wing media*.

This is why Ebola has to specifically be a presidential-level event. If it's a state or CDC (Federal) issue it loses the necessary gravitas. This is why we see so many of the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls involved: This is about the presidency.

The Ebola situation has (or, well, possibly maybe could have) the same contours as Katrina: a preventable disaster which spirals out of control due to a presidential response that is (a) too late, (b) too weak when it finally happens, and (c) devastating. The attempt to make Ebola "Obama's Katrina" is just one of many (19) tries--but at least it has two of the required three elements. Specifically:

  1. Shortly after Obama gave a speech saying Ebola would likely not "come to America," well, it came.
  2. Obama's response has not been to wall off air-travel from West African infected regions or impose a mandatory 21 day quarantine. It is possible that more people have already been infected in the US (despite the numbers above being pretty low) and--hey--there are an estimated 13,500 US visa holders in infected regions. If one of them thinks they have been exposed and the local hospitals are a death sentence? It's not a stretch to think they'd come to the states (quietly, of course--they want to get in) and then seek help here.

The formula is most clearly laid out here: The Case for Panic
Deadly, irrational, and determined, the intruder snuck across a weakened perimeter. Eluding capture, the intruder was detained only after missteps and close calls. The spin began soon after the threat was isolated. Information was selectively leaked. Half-truths and untruths were uttered. Responsibility was avoided; privileges and credentials asserted; authority reasserted. Trust us. Remain calm. Don’t panic.
The article cleverly links the recent White House intruder scenario to the Ebola event. The math (in the article) is incompetent government + corrupt elite = disaster. And, let's be clear--there is another element to this that makes it especially tasty: the Immigration angle. These people coming to our shores with Ebola? They're foreign black people. This probably plays better to the choir than the populace at large because immigration from Africa and illegals from Mexico are two very different things--but a great deal of effort was put into trying to find out if Duncan was an illegal.

So, okay: it could kinda work, right?

Probably not. What Ebola is mostly missing is the third leg of the stool: once introduced into the American environment it, in its current form, fails to spread as rapidly or widely as necessary to be a Katrina-level event.
Yes, the problem is that unless Ebola becomes airborne it is simply not contagious enough to create mass-havoc**. That will require a well coordinated media narrative and the fact that Ebola is, really, very very scary if you are right next to it. If you hear your neighbor cough report him!

* Possibly also disturbing: Super Storm Sandy and the last two RNC conventions being threatened by hurricanes ...

** In case this isn't clear: If someone has Ebola in the US and you are exposed to them you could well get it. What it (thus-far, we hope) lacks is the mutation to spread widely and easily when the patient is not very sick. Even if it were airborne through wet coughing, for example, this would not make it able to infect large crowds or travel "clandestinely" through the populace.

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