At the end of a discussion about Ron Paul’s comments encouraging state secession on the Oct. 1 episode of “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, Sam Stein of the Huffington Post quipped: “The previous discussion we had was about Ebola, Ebola appearing in the state of Texas, Texas, which is led by Governor Rick Perry who has hinted at secession. What are they doing as soon as Ebola shows up in Dallas? They`re calling the CDC, the federal government agency to help them.”
“The irony is complete,” replied Matthews. Stein is correct – in this moment of potential crisis, like in rare moments of widespread catastrophe, Americans of all political stripes realize the importance of federal institutions in protecting our health and safety.
The recent confirmation that a Liberian man with Ebola entered the United States frenzied the American media, with many, including Matthews, questioning how an infected man was possibly able to board a plane to the United States, especially after news broke that this man helped transport an infected woman who later died of the disease. The answer, which is both reassuring and equally frightening, is that the disease does not become contagious until the infected person shows symptoms. Until the arrival of the disease in the U.S., Ebola and the devastation it causes (around 70% of infected people will die), seemed to be limited to a few countries in West Africa that lack the healthcare infrastructure necessary in order to combat such a large problem.
As the Washington Post reported, “The fact that the disease has been confirmed on American soil immediately sparked fears in the U.S., turning a public health crisis from a faraway news story to something that makes people reach for Purell and facemasks. But experts said it was impossible to imagine that Ebola, which a CDC estimate projects could infect up to half a million people by January, would remain completely outside the country's borders.” Thus, when panic ensued as Americans quickly learned of the infection reaching the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control stepped in almost reflexively, assuring Americans that “the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is very low.”
As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country with the structural capacity in both the public and private sectors to effectively respond to the presence of Ebola. A strong federal government with an active interest in protecting the health of Americans is a key element of the healthcare infrastructure in the U.S., in which the Department of Health and Human Services plays the central role. Within HHS are a number of organizations, several of which are likely familiar to many Americans: the Administration for Children and Families, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes for Health, and, of course, the Centers for Disease Control. From food labeling to ensuring drug quality standards, these agencies protect the health of Americans in ways that often go unnoticed. But in emergencies, they are essential.
It should not take a hemorrhagic fever on American soil to realize the importance of institutions of the federal government, especially in regard to public health.
As Sam Stein accurately commented, when Ebola appeared in Texas, there was no question that the CDC would be at the forefront of the effort to contain the virus. The CDC has taken the lead in actively communicating to the American public the realities of the situation, reassuring Americans about the strength of healthcare institutions. Likewise, the CDC has developed plans for the management of Ebola in the U.S., and has sent experts to Texas to help coordinate crisis management on the ground. In the face of such a threatening disease, the CDC’s response has been robust, and Americans should applaud the brave healthcare workers, federal government employees or not, who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others.
There are several grounds on which one can legitimately critique institutions of the federal government. One need not look beyond the recently uncovered Secret Service scandals to see how size, (mis)management and communication can be major, and sometimes systemic, problems. The assault, often through budgetary means on federal agencies during times of non-emergency, is too grounded in a generalized skepticism of the federal government. Such attacks irresponsibly and, one could argue, immorally, hinder these agencies’ ability to function, especially during emergencies.
According to the “Mother Jones,” in a Sept. 16 committee hearing, Sen. Patty Murray asked Anthony Fauci of the NIH about the effects of budget cuts on the U.S.’s response to Ebola. Fauci provided the answer: “I have to tell you honestly it's been a significant impact on us. It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way eroded our ability to respond in the way that I and my colleagues would like to see us be able to respond to these emerging threats. And in my institute particularly, that's responsible for responding on the dime to an emerging infectious disease threat, this is particularly damaging.”
In other words, budget cuts have compromised the federal government’s ability to respond to public health emergencies. As reported in the same article, Beth Bell of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases said that large cuts to international aid of hundreds of millions of dollars had partially contributed to the lack of medical infrastructure development in the region, a major factor contributing to the fast spread of the virus. Therefore, on multiple levels, the attack on essential public health institutions has dangerously compromised the government’s response.
There are flaws in the federal government that can and should be fixed. With that in mind, policymakers and politicians should not allow these flaws to cloud their judgments, or more cynically, invoke them as excuses designed to advance certain ideological goals that hamper federal agencies. Americans are currently witnessing a strong federal response to the Ebola crisis, one that is essential to preventing a catastrophic outbreak. It is important for policymakers and politicians to support public health agencies, particularly with funding. It should not and cannot require a potential catastrophe to remind Americans about the critical role these institutions play in protecting human lives.
Contact staff writer Ryan McEvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org