Wimp Charges Make It Harder to Stop Ebola
Yesterday's congressional hearing on Ebola demonstrated what may be the U.S.'s greatest obstacle to dealing with the outbreak. It's not money, manpower or know-how, but something both simpler and harder: deciding whether it's OK to care about the rest of the world.
In his opening questions, Republican Congressman Tim Murphy, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, accused Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of not banning travel to and from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in part because it would hurt those countries. Murphy then tried to find out how far up the chain of command that idea went:
Murphy: Dr. Frieden, when we spoke on the phone the other day, you remain opposed to travel restrictions because, in your words, you said cutting commercial ties would hurt these fledgling democracies. Now, is this the opinion of CDC, is this your opinion, or did someone also did advise you, something within the administration, someone -- any other agencies? Where did this opinion come from that that's of high importance?
Frieden: My sole concern is to protect Americans. We can do that by continuing to take the steps we're taking here as well as --
Murphy: Did someone advise you on that, someone else outside of yourself, somebody else advised you that that's a position -- we need to protect fledgling democracies?
Frieden: My recollection of that conversation is that that discussion was in the context of our ability to stop the epidemic at the source.
The exchange is revealing for two reasons. First, it shows that Murphy thought he could embarrass Frieden -- and by extension the Barack Obama administration -- by disclosing his concern for those countries that have been devastated by Ebola. Second, it suggests that Frieden, who did his best to sidestep those questions, realized the risk of giving that impression.
The correct answer to Murphy's question is that thanks to Ebola, the well-being of those countries can't be separated from the well-being of Americans. The disease would never have made it to the U.S. if not for the terrible state of the health-care systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which stems in turn from their struggling economies.
Anything that puts further strain on those countries will only weaken their ability to deal with this outbreak, as well as the next one. The likely safety benefits of a travel ban would need to outweigh the damage to those countries' economies caused by further restricting the flow of people and goods. And by any rational account, they wouldn't.
But that's not an argument Frieden was eager to get into -- even though, from what Murphy said, it's one Frieden is aware of and was willing to advance in private.
Why the sudden reluctance? Probably because Frieden senses the same thing Murphy does: Fear of Ebola has exacerbated the U.S. tendency toward isolationism and xenophobia, and the view that considering the fate of other countries amounts to softness or worse.
The problem with that tendency, aside from being ignoble, is that it makes it harder to overcome this outbreak, a fight that will be won or lost in West Africa. And winning means deciding that it's acceptable for U.S. officials to care about the health and stability of far-off countries. Apparently we're not there yet.
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