The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has prompted a lot of alarm and alarmism. Here in the United States, while there are legitimate concerns about protecting the U.S. population from Ebola before there’s a significant outbreak, a good deal of that alarmism is overblown. Ebola is not an airborne virus, and it’s ill-suited to spreading rapidly outside the conditions of a jungle climate and a Third-World medical system.
But in West Africa, where the outbreaks have already killed an estimated 4,000 people (a number that is rising rapidly), people should be alarmed. And listening to President Obama’s efforts to offer them health advice could get them killed:
That’s right, President Obama is reassuring West Africans worried about Ebola that “Ebola is not spread through the air like the flu…You cannot get it through casual contact like sitting next to someone on a bus.” The message, plainly, is that it is safe for people in areas with Ebola outbreaks to use public transportation. He cautions that “the most common way you can get Ebola is by touching the body fluids of someone who is sick or has died from it, like their sweat, saliva or blood, or through a contaminated item like a needle.” (He doesn’t mention vomit, although this is a frequent symptom of the disease).
Meanwhile, Obama’s own Centers for Disease Control is telling people that, even if they were not exposed to Ebola, if they start running a fever they should “avoid public transportation”—a warning that seems unnecessary if infected people riding buses create no risk.
Hello: West Africa Ain’t the United States
Here’s where it’s important to consider the reality of West Africa. Buses in that part of the world are tightly packed and poorly cooled, often with just a desultory fan at best, and avoiding the sweat of the person next to you is easier said than done. And once that person vomits or bleeds on the bus—not an uncommon problem with a fast-moving hemorrhagic fever—it’s too late to avoid their bodily fluids. Obama says, “You cannot get it from another person until they start showing symptoms of the disease, like fever,” but again, how easy is it to diagnose a fever in a crowd of people sweating in the heat of a tropical jungle? And bear in mind, these countries have few, if any, ambulances, so sick people have few options but to ride public transit to get to the hospital when they’re critically ill. In other words, Obama is encouraging people to come near Ebola victims when they are at their most contagious.
I am fairly certain that the Secret Service would have a collective seizure if you suggested that the president ride a bus in Liberia or Sierra Leone full of people who haven’t been carefully screened to make sure they don’t have Ebola. The people of those countries should not be lulled into a false sense of security about the hazards of the virus. Nigeria, which has had great success so far in resisting the encroachment of Ebola from its neighbors, has taken a very heavy-handed approach that used mobile phone tracking and law enforcement to identify everyone who might have come into contact with an infected person – quite a different view from telling people to ride the bus with the infected.
Why would President Obama go out of his way to strike this tone? Perhaps he is just too wrapped up in the domestic, election-year politics of Ebola to see clearly—as some have speculated, the Obama administration’s resistance to a highly popular ban on travel to and from countries with ongoing Ebola epidemics may be driven by fear of the implications for the political debate over immigration. (Some Obama supporters in the media have gone further and argued that it is racist to even discuss such a ban). Perhaps it’s a hangover from the AIDS crisis, when there was a fair amount of unfounded alarm about the contagiousness of AIDS victims until the public learned that the disease is spread mainly through intravenous drug use, risky sexual behaviors, and poorly-screened blood transfusions. Either way, the president should really be more responsible in offering health advice to people in the Third World.