What is it all about?
From national newspapers to popular magazines to local television broadcasts and everything in between, Ebola has dominated the media over the past month. As the news coverage surrounding Ebola continues, it has become clear that in the United States, the outbreak is not just of interest to the Centers for Disease Control or the doctors working on the virus, but to all U.S. residents. A testament to the widespread anxiety about Ebola has been the involvement of the government in the crisis and the ensuing debate about the appropriate response to the outbreak.
Before going further, it is worthwhile to get the numbers straight regarding the Ebola outbreak in the United States. As of the end of October, there have been four documented cases, two of which came from West Africa and two of which were developed by transmission in the U.S.; of these four cases, one has resulted in death.
Despite the unbelievable level of hysteria associated with the virus, very few people have actually contracted the disease. The CDC and the researchers working on the disease are well aware of how the virus works and what can be done to prevent future infection. On its website, the CDC posts frequent updates about the status of the outbreak in the U.S. and West Africa, including up-to-date guidelines for those who may have been exposed, including healthcare workers.
Regardless of the involvement of such a capable organization, after the cases in Dallas there continued to be criticism about how the Ebola cases were handled — notably, the lack of government involvement . It was not long before the White House appointed an “Ebola czar” . Though it may sound foreign to some, the concept of a “czar” is not new; several presidents have appointed czars to help manage crisis situations and President Obama appointed several to deal with the recession in 2009 . As was communicated by the White House Press Secretary, the decision to create such a point person was an attempt to ensure the proper coordination and control of the government response .
In spite of the government’s action, many remain skeptical. The Ebola “czar,” Ron Klain, was a previous chief of staff for Vice President Biden and has no experience in public health . Klain has made few public appearances since being appointed, causing many to question what he is actually doing . Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, the governors of New York and New Jersey respectively, have pushed back against the government’s relaxed response by urging strict quarantine procedures, reigniting panic about the spread of Ebola . The White House then pressured the governors to reverse these requirements by noting the lack of scientific basis for these quarantines . In short, what has ensued has been a back-and-forth argument between various government officials, interspersed with the public, over the appropriate level of response.
The intervention by the government brings about the question of how involved the government should be in a health crisis, especially given the nature of the virus and the outbreak. Many viruses that have led to outbreaks in the past, such as smallpox or swine flu, have been easily transmitted, have affected a significant number of people and have available vaccines. Consequently, the government was able to take actions that would make a significant difference in limiting the response, such as mandating vaccination. Unlike these other outbreaks, however, Ebola has infected very few, is difficult to transmit and does not have a vaccine. Therefore, there is little that the government can do besides quell the hysteria surrounding Ebola.
The different reactions of the government seem like attempts to do just that. The more relaxed response from the White House, with the appointment of the “czar,” helps show the public that the outbreak is under control and that there is someone to handle the crisis. The stringent responses by Cuomo and Christie help show the public that everything possible is being done to handle the crisis. Neither response has affected the spread of Ebola. Rather, both work to convince the public that Ebola is under control.
...there is little that the government can do besides quell the hysteria surrounding Ebola.
Although the conversation has triggered a debate about the extent of government intervention in controlling an outbreak, it seems that the underlying debate is instead about how to minimize the public frenzy. By emphasizing the proactive nature of the government in response to Ebola, both reactions accommodate the public’s concerns to some degree. But to what extent should policy be shaped by these concerns? From the nature of their responses, it appears that Cuomo and Christie support the use of policy to address concerns whereas the White House does not see the need. Evidently, the government responses to the Ebola outbreak reinforce the importance of public perception in informing governmental response and highlight some of the issues that will surface in future public health crises.