POLITICS
11/20/2014 08:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Heroes And Zeroes Of America's Brief Ebola Outbreak

WASHINGTON -- It's been three weeks since the White House event where President Barack Obama shook hands with doctors and nurses who treated Ebola patients in West Africa, and the president apparently does not have Ebola.

The disease still rages in West Africa, where more than 5,000 people have died since March, though new transmissions have apparently slowed in Liberia and Guinea thanks to concerted public health efforts. Officials will need to remain vigilant here and abroad, but let us use the occasion of the president's not having Ebola to reflect on the Great American Ebola Panic of October 2014 and its most panicky personages.

GETTING IT RIGHT

President Barack Obama: An Ebola outbreak is a situation that brings a dire sense of necessity and purpose, but it’s nowhere near as complicated as -- say -- reforming Medicare. So Obama did the smart thing: Keep his head while everyone around him was in the process of self-decapitation. Obama opted to calmly stick with the experts, imposing no draconian quarantine conditions or counter-productive travel restrictions, and let medical professionals do their jobs.

The only real sop he offered to those who insisted that “something” had to be “done” beyond calmly containing the outbreak, was the appointment of Ron Klain to the position of Ebola czar. As of this writing, it’s not entirely clear what this accomplished. As many pointed out at the time, Klain was not a medical professional -- a fact that led to no end of hand-wringing. However, the simple fact of the matter is that Obama already had this thing called “the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention” to perform the effort of centrally controlling the disease.

Since that means the only extant problem was one of political perception, Klain was perhaps ideally suited to the task. At the very least, Klain’s appointment led Obama’s rabid political opposition and the nitwits in the media to take some time off of their Ebola panic-mongering to indulge in several days worth of seeking a Klainsplanation.

Basically, with the Klain appointment, Obama accomplished the same thing that you get when you wave a laser pointer around in a room full of dumb kittens. (Only in this case, the kittens were irresponsibly panicking a nation over Ebola.)

Obama even managed to take something he’s not normally good at -- the “theatrics” of being president -- and do it well. He went out of his way to hug, kiss, and shake hands with Ebola survivors and people potentially exposed to Ebola. Because public health experts say you can only get the disease from contact with a sick person's bodily fluids, Obama's commitment to intimate encounters with these health professionals and patients helped project a needed confidence, while also helping to recognize those fighting Ebola on the front lines. Looks like experts were right about that, since Obama doesn't appear to be sick after his last Ebola handshake session on Oct. 29.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC can’t be said to have gotten everything right during the U.S. Ebola scare. One of its most notable mistakes was giving Dallas-based Ebola nurse Amber Vinson the all-clear to take commercial flights to and from Cleveland -- trips that occurred mere hours before she began to show symptoms from Ebola. At a time when a top priority was keeping the spread of the disease out of the population at large, the CDC was lucky it didn’t lose containment. Additionally, the CDC managed to give the Ebola conspiracy theorists some fodder after sneakily editing its website and altering some information about the virus’ transmissability.

Nevertheless, faced with the first potential U.S. outbreak of Ebola, the CDC did way more things right than wrong, successfully leading the effort to stamp out the spread of the disease. CDC Director Tom Frieden maintained a studied calm on multiple media appearances, helping to extinguish mini-pandemics of hype and fear wherever they threatened to become viral. The organization sits atop an infrastructural effort that collectively makes the U.S. the nation where your chance of surviving Ebola is the highest. And unlike the media and your Congress, the CDC has not taken its attention from the real problem: Ebola’s outbreak in West Africa.

The CDC will benefit from the fact that its few mistakes were given a high amount of scrutiny. Meanwhile, the organization can essentially declaim: “Look Ma! No Ebola outbreak in the United States!”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry: As with the CDC, Perry (R) won’t be able to claim that he got through the Ebola crisis error-free. Like the CDC, Texas’ health officials under Perry’s bailiwick played a role in causing “Panic In The Skies: The Amber Vinson Story.” After taking the correct stance on travel bans, Perry reversed himself and came out in favor of epidemic-enabling restrictions. And Perry wasn’t quite able to distance himself from his political point-scoring instincts.

Still, in the aggregate, Perry arguably compares favorably to a lot of public officials -- especially when put alongside other governors who bungled their response to Ebola. Perry set a calm and positive tone at the outset of the crisis, imparting crucial information with ideal accuracy. In the wake of mistakes, Perry included himself in his assessment: “We must admit, along the way, we have seen ample opportunity for improvement.” To that end, Perry announced that he would impanel a new Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response, which potentially may aid in the containment of future outbreaks.

Shepard Smith: "You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise. ... Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible."

Thus spake Fox News’ Smith, at a time where all around him -- notably, at his workplace -- the media was descending into a depraved, nonsensical insanity over the Ebola outbreak. Smith’s words helped to start turning the tide in the media discourse.

There are others who deserve to be lauded for remaining sensible at a time when everyone else in the media seemed to be turning into a werewolf. Media giant Gannett made a company-wide decision to use its platform as a proactive tool to aid the effort to halt both the disease and misinformation about the disease. The Dallas Morning News -- located at the epicenter of Ebola in the U.S. and sitting on a unique opportunity to harvest the fervor for coverage in a profit-maximizing way -- decided to slow itself down, passing on quick revenue-generating scoops and the opportunity to break news in favor of being reliable. And Harold Pollack wrote a masterful, soup-to-nuts-and-spare-nobody piece for Politico Magazine that analyzed every avenue of Ebola-response, just when it seemed like the world needed a dose of reassurance.

Nevertheless, we return to Smith’s pledge to his viewers: “I report to you with certainty this afternoon that being afraid at all is the wrong thing to do." There was nothing stopping anyone else on cable teevee from saying the same thing.

America’s Medical Professionals: Beyond the pundits and bureaucrats and policymakers, the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in America -- just like the front lines of the larger epidemic in West Africa -- are manned by a select group of mostly anonymous health professionals -- doctors, nurses, and technicians -- who do all the invisible work of treating patients and containing the disease. They labor under tough conditions, even in the U.S. But the ideal outcome of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is that the disease remains contained to the patients being treated and the professionals providing the treatment. America’s health care workers weren’t able to save every Ebola patient. But they successfully kept the disease from leaping into the larger population, and they managed to successfully treat one another, so that those who ended up stricken with the virus themselves all lived to fight the disease another day.

GETTING IT WRONG

The Idiot Governors: A good definition of "leading from behind" would be doing what is popular, even if the popular thing is contrary to what is right.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) briefly attempted to impose a set of unnecessarily draconian quarantine protocols, mandating that any health professional who had contact with Ebola patients in Africa would have to spend 21 days in isolation without regard for symptoms. As health professionals attempted to point out, this was bound to accomplish nothing more than discouraging the people desperately needed in West Africa to aid in the effort to contain the outbreak. In short, it was as close to a “pro-Ebola” policy as you could get.

Nurse Kaci Hickox ended up getting caught up in this idiotic dragnet, forced to spend three days in a tent behind a New Jersey hospital after she returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Christie backed down after Hickox threatened to sue, all the while still insisting he hadn't backed down. (At the moment, it looks like Christie has “quietly dumped” his zany plan.)

Unfortunately for Hickox, she soon found herself subject to the whims of Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), the gubernatorial equivalent of getting drunk and running with scissors. LePage attempted to force Hickox to stay inside her home in Maine. Hickox’s response was basically, “Nah.” This all lead to insane scenes on television of police lurking outside her house and reporters chasing after her any time she went for a bike ride. Three weeks passed and she never came down with Ebola -- not that there had been any special reason to think she had Ebola in the first place, nor any reason to quarantine her.

At the same time as Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) implemented a similar three-week hospital quarantine protocol that drew the similar ire of epidemiologists and public health professionals. Then, like Christie, Cuomo un-implemented it. He advised people riding out home quarantines that they could read his book, just in case they actually want to feel sick.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was one of the first big Republicans to demand an Ebola travel ban. It's an idea that polls very well, though experts say discouraging volunteers from traveling to West Africa will not help contain the Ebola outbreak that is exclusively located in West Africa.

So Jindal did the next-best thing: He told some doctors to get lost. In October the state of Louisiana advised the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which had booked its annual conference for New Orleans in November, that anyone who had recently traveled from West Africa shouldn't come. No word on whether any discouraged attendees later came down with the virus, but Jindal surely prevented at least a few tourist dollars from infecting the local economy.

By the way, Jindal has a biology degree from Brown University and he specialized in health policy while pursuing a post-graduate degree at Oxford. So he’s really squandered an expensive education that probably should have gone to someone more deserving.

Syracuse University: Syracuse really forced America to consider whether the words “institution of higher learning” deserved to be used to describe the school in October, when its leaders lost their minds and disinvited Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille from a workshop intended to benefit journalism students. Du Cille had been in Liberia, closely covering the Ebola outbreak in that country, but had been demonstrably Ebola-free during the 21-day incubation period after returning to the U.S. Syracuse essentially decided that it was dangerous to have someone who did not have Ebola around its students.

Du Cille told the Washington Post’s Lindsay Bever: “I’m pissed off and embarrassed and completely weirded out that a journalism institution that should be seeking out facts and details is basically pandering to hysteria.”

Syracuse’s feebleminded response to the Ebola crisis was chief among many examples of educational institutions failing the public and their employees.

Opportunists and fearmongers of 2014: The greatest trick that Ebola ever pulled was making its stateside debut in the midst of an election cycle -- a time at which the typically irresponsible stewards of our public policy and discourse would be at their greatest levels of personal debasement. Numerous politicians stoked fears about Ebola-infected ne’er-do-wells coming across the United States’ southern border, presumably because they wanted a super-complicated and costly way of committing suicide, despite the urgings of experts, who said these scenarios were at Narnia levels of far-fetchedness. As you might expect, these threats slowly transformed into even more fantastical ideas, such as “terrorists will infect themselves with Ebola and bring their death-poop to these shores.”

Politicians on the campaign trail performed as badly you can imagine -- at one point, it seemed as if candidates from both parties were having a local competition with one another to see who could back the most irresponsible travel ban policy the hardest. And when Ebola showed up in campaign ads -- as it did in this spot from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) that stopped only inches short of suggesting that his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was “pro-Ebola” -- it was reliably gross.

The Media: Finally, let’s talk about who was responsible for willfully, wantonly, spreading Ebola-failure far and wide across the country.

There’s really no nice way to put this -- the news media handled the Ebola mini-outbreak with all of the intelligence and responsibility you’d expect from a room full of toddlers given a leaky gasoline can and a pack of “strike anywhere” matches. At a time that demanded calm, reasonable, and reassuring voices, the media instead plunged into the Ebola story with its adrenal glands raging and its sense of purpose shot and left dead on the side of the road.

This was an epic cock-up with every irresponsible ingredient. There was CNN’s famous comparison of Ebola and the terrorists from the Islamic State, a purposeless endeavor designed for the sake of panic-infused, ratings-boosting synergy. CNN also introduced disease-freak pulp novelist Robin Cook as “the man who wrote the book on Ebola.” Fox News gave airtime to a dotty conspiracy theorist whose claim to fame was wandering around Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport dressed as an extra from “Contagion” emblazoned with the words “CDC is lying.”

We could go on. Joe Scarborough went full nitwit on “Meet The Press.” There were a steady stream of know-nothings calling for travel bans. Congenital liar Betsy McCaughey, who should have been dumped in the wilderness ages ago, was regularly presented as some sort of expert. All of this and much more.

What’s especially galling about all of this is that the media, by and large, never even approached the Ebola story as a public health matter. It was, essentially, just a shiny object embedded in the already vapid coverage of the 2014 election cycle. Fed, like coprophiles, on a steady diet of excrement produced by fearmongering politicians, cable news’ anti-intellectual jihadists spat up panic and folly until Election Day, after which Ebola suddenly became a whole lot less interesting. Seemingly overnight, Ebola became a non-story -- closely paralleling the way Ebola suddenly became a non-issue in Congress.

As noted above, there were many laudable exceptions to the media’s overall binge of dangerous, desperate cluelessness. But it was a shameful period, best summed up by Roll Call editor-in-chief Christina Bellantoni, who during the most recent edition of HuffPost's “Drinking and Talking” (click the video above) opined, “The Ebola stuff was gross. ... Just watching the media being responsible for people freaking out. ... It was so frustrating because you realized that this was an actual shift in perception, and it was inaccurate, and it’s our fault.”

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