Political Implications of the Ebola Outbreak

By Joseph Jang ’18:

Obama-EbolaOn October 15, 2014, the second Texan hospital worker tested positive for Ebola. Ebola is a contagious virus that has a 70% mortality rate. Although there is no risk in transmission from people who have been exposed but have not yet exhibited symptoms, Ebola transfers easily through direct contact with bodily fluids and can remain active on dry surfaces for several days.

Since March 2014, about 8,900 people in West Africa have contracted Ebola and more than half have died as a result. However, the virus has spread beyond African borders and, in recent weeks, has arrived on America’s doorsteps.

Following the death of Liberian citizen Thomas Duncan (the first person to contract Ebola on U.S. soil) and the positive diagnoses of two Texan health workers who had treated Duncan, focus has been on the health department’s inability to uphold strict protocols and thorough screening for Ebola. Although the responsibility of maintaining public health is on the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Obama administration is shouldering much of the blame for inefficient action.

In response, on October 17, the president designated former Biden aide Ron Klain as the White House’s Ebola Response Coordinator. However, Obama’s decision has received criticism because while Klain is known as a great manager, he does not possess a background in health care. Moreover, many voters are also opposing the president’s decision to send U.S. troops to help fight the virus in Africa.

Another point of contention has been President Obama’s refusal to cancel flights from the United States to Liberia, Sierra Leon, and Guinea, citing reasons such as economic consequence and infeasibility of such an action. However, according to SurveyMonkey, 58% of Americans are in favor of the government canceling all flights to countries stricken by Ebola. Travelers are concerned because the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the CDC’s new screening procedures still do not seem sufficient for protecting U.S. citizens from Ebola, as evidenced by the three outbreaks of Ebola in Dallas, Texas, just this past week.

Especially since U.S. midterm elections are coming up in October, both political parties are using this opportunity to discredit and cast blame on one another. Given President Obama’s falling poll numbers, Democrats fear Republicans may take over the Senate, further diminishing White House political capital. Unsurprisingly, Ebola has been a hot-button issue in the congressional races. For instance, Senator Mark Udall (Colorado) is blaming the Republican Party for the poor response of health workers, highlighting Republican-supported budget cuts of public health agencies like the CDC, whose primary role is to anticipate and respond to such threats. “I can tell you what I’m not going to do, and that’s what [opponent] Congressman Gardner did—which is to vote for close to $300 million in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget that funds emergency response teams,” he promised.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are blaming the Obama administration for not taking enough action against Ebola. In particular, Republican lawmakers are grilling Thomas Frieden, the current chief of the CDC, on his response to the Ebola outbreak and for downplaying the seriousness of such a virus. Two Republicans have even called for Frieden’s resignation.

Although the Ebola outbreak is a critical issue in the public health arena, politicians from both parties have been using it to further their political platforms on public health reforms and the effectiveness of the current administration. The only point the two parties agree upon is the danger of an outbreak in the U.S. Instead of debating border control and travel restriction policies, it would be more fruitful for politicians to focus their efforts on fast-tracking the development of medical treatments. A vaccine called ZMapp, which has shown significant potential in the past few months, is a possible contender.

“I think in the coming weeks,” said House Speaker John Boehner, “you will see the Congress and the administration figure out how do we best contain this very horrible disease.” Hopefully, lawmakers will be able to cease the political bickering and solidify a plan for eradicating Ebola in the long-term.









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