Following the news about the Ebola virus it sometimes feels like we are living in the first twenty minutes of a horror movie. A patient dies of the virus in a hospital as inadequate precautions are taken; one of the nurses from that hospital flies on a plane potentially infecting other passengers; the disease continues to ravage a faraway country, in this case Liberia; politicians call for travel bans, quarantines and other measures. The problem, however, is we don’t know which horror movie this is. Is it the one where thousands or more die because a highly contagious disease is not treated appropriately or is it the one where the population panics leading to a disturbing revelation about the callous and selfish nature of humanity?
The American response has ranged from the careful to the self-serving and headline grabbing. The Obama administration has thus far been cautious, eschewing a travel ban — partially out of a fear of overreacting and inciting panic and partially because a travel ban might lead some to try to sneak into the country and avoid screening altogether. The former point seems reasonable, but latter point would be more persuasive if not for the clear reality that many people are already trying to evade official scrutiny as they come into the U.S.. Yesterday, the administration raised the possibility of pointing an Ebola czar.This is Washington speak for appointing somebody who has been in Washington a long time to act slowly on whatever issue is the focus of the appointment. So today, former chief of staff to Al Gore and Joe Biden, Ron Klain — yes, the guy who will forever be etched in the minds of HBO subscribers as Kevin Spacey, who portrayed him in Recount — was chosen for that role. A very able administrator, Mr. Klain has no training in the containment of infectious disease — this might have been a better choice if we were infested with hanging chads.
More active responses include New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been harshly criticized by his opponent Rob Astorino for inaction on ebola, calling for random Ebola drills on the New York City subway because clearly New Yorkers need more stress on their commutes. Numerous Republican politicians, notably Speaker of the House John Boehner have called for flight bans from Liberia or West Africa more generally. Yesterday, former White House spokesperson Jay Carney joined the chorus of voices calling for flight bans.
The Obama administration has, to the surprise of nobody, come under criticism for acting too slowly and exercising too much caution. A few weeks before a major election, it is natural for political opponents to use Ebola as another way to attack a President who is reeling from a series of foreign policy crises. President Obama’s critics are not entirely to blame as the President’s slow and careful style may not be best suited to combating a virus like Ebola. However, slowing the media and the panic down may be precisely what we need. President Obama has long sought to be the country’s soother in chief. Now may be the moment when that is most needed. We just don’t know because we have only seen the first 20 minutes of this horror movie and aren’t sure whether we are watching Contagion or “The Shelter” episode of The Twilight Zone.
There is an element of the concern about Ebola that feels like a drunken man’s search-looking for keys he dropped not near the door where they are more likely to be, but under a streetlamp because the light is better there. Right now the light is shining more brightly on Ebola than on other health crises facing America such as gun violence, automobile accidents or even the flu. Sadly, regardless of how the Ebola crisis plays out, once it is over, many of those voices calling for a more robust response to Ebola now, will go back to ignoring all those other problems just beyond the light of the streetlamp.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.