US govt's Ebola moves offer cold comfort

CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE: US President Obama (left, with CDC director Frieden) spoke with an odd dispassion on a possible travel ban on West Africa and the Ebola czar position. This comes at a time when Americans are losing faith in their government.


    Oct 20, 2014

    US govt's Ebola moves offer cold comfort

    AMERICANS have no clue at this point how far Ebola could spread in the United States - and no reason for panic.

    But one dimension of the disease's toll is clear. It's ravaging Americans' already tenuous faith in the competence of the US government and its bureaucracies.

    Before US President Barack Obama's election, we had Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the meltdown of banks supposedly under Washington's watch. Since he came along to tidy things up, we've had the messy roll-out of Obamacare and the baffling somnambulism of the Secret Service.

    Now this. Although months of a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa gave the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sufficient warning and ample time to get ready for any cases here, it was caught flat-footed, as its director, Tom Frieden, is being forced bit by bit to acknowledge.

    Weeks ago, he assured us: "We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country." Over recent days, he updated that assessment, saying that "in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight", federal officials could and should have done more at a hospital in Dallas.

    Mr Obama made his own assurances and then corrections. He said back in the middle of last month that "in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we've taken new measures so that we're prepared here at home".

    Well, we Americans weren't wholly prepared, and the event was never unlikely - the US is a potent magnet for travellers. And a federally funded study published early last month calculated a nearly 20 per cent "probability of Ebola virus disease case importation" within three weeks.

    Within four, Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who was initially turned away from the Dallas hospital, was at last admitted and treated for Ebola.

    After that screw-up by hospital officials, Dr Frieden told us the right protocols were in place. But it now appears Mr Duncan wasn't immediately put in isolation; that nurses attending to him were confused about the proper use of protective garb; and that the clothing they wore may have left bits of skin exposed.

    We've learnt of the CDC's bizarrely permissive attitude towards the hospital workers who came in contact with Mr Duncan or his lab samples. While they should have been on restricted movement, one took flights - after first calling the CDC for the green light - from Texas to Ohio and back. Another boarded a cruise ship.

    This is bad, not because it means that a large number of Americans are at risk of infection, but because it confirms the sloppiness of the very institutions in which we place the most trust. It's spreading the virus of cynicism.

    Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Mr Obama's style of communication hasn't risen fully to the occasion.

    Even as he cancelled campaign appearances and created a position - Ebola czar - that we were previously told wasn't necessary, he spoke with an odd dispassion.

    On a possible travel ban on West Africa, he said: "I don't have a philosophical objection necessarily." On the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person "to make sure that we're crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's going forward". He's talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.

    Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It's an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn't. There was the red line for Syria that he didn't have to draw and later erased.

    With Ebola, he said almost two weeks ago that "we're doing everything that we can" with an "all-hands-on-deck approach". But on Wednesday and Thursday, he said there were additional hands to be put on deck and that we could and would do more. The shift fits his pattern: Not getting worked up in the early stages, rallying in the later ones.

    It's more understandable in this case than in others, because when it comes to statements about public health, the line between adequately expressed concern and a licence for hysteria is thin and not easily determined.

    Still, he has to make Americans feel that he understands their alarm, no matter how irrational he deems it, and that they're being levelled with, not talked down to, not handled. And he has some way to go.

    "If you were his parent, you'd want to shake him," said one Democratic strategist, who questioned where Mr Obama's passion was and whether, even this deep into his presidency, he appreciated one of the office's most vital functions: Deploying language, bearing, symbols and ceremony to endow Americans with confidence in who's leading them and in how they're being led.

    Right now in America, there's a crisis of confidence and of competence, and that's the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers.

    That's the backdrop for whatever steps Mr Obama and Dr Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way towards calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola, but also about America.

    I don't even want to think about the wrong ones.