Government demonstrates how not to handle a crisis

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

I think two things are fairly clear about Ebola: there isn’t a catastrophic deadly virus outbreak in the United States, and the federal government wouldn’t have the first bloody clue what to do about it if there was one.

America has an advanced, western-style medical system that largely precludes the sort of calamitous outbreaks that periodically plague parts of Africa. Indeed, there are several, much more highly contagious diseases lurking about out there. And if caught early, it seems Ebola isn’t an automatic death sentence.

Which is not to say there’s nothing whatsoever to worry about. Ebola, along with other forms of hemorrhagic fever, is a god-awful, pernicious disease that kills in horrifyingly high numbers if we don’t pay attention to it. The Obama administration, in trying to downplay the threat as a way to cover for its multiple failures in dealing with the situation, is falling back on the ludicrous “settled science” argument while multiple epidemiological studies reveal, as usual, that science is rarely settled and we might not know everything we would like to about the virus.

Somewhere between the impending-end-of-the-world and don’t-worry-be-happy narratives is something of a warning. As much as anything, the discovery of Ebola on our shores has served as a test of how the federal government would react to a full-blown infectious disease outbreak. It would be charitable to say that results are mixed.

The government’s several failures and missteps have been widely reported, and I won’t rehash them here. As usual, the failures largely stem from government exceeding its reach. A rather cynical, but not entirely unrealistic, view of what happened could be summarized by the observation that any bureaucracy that has become as engorged and unwieldy as the federal government cannot help but fail.

The central role of any government is to protect its people, be that from barbarians at the gate or a deadly virus of foreign origin. It can certainly be argued, then, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a legitimate role: directing some national resources to studying the nature and effects of infectious diseases capable of affecting the entire nation, assessing their risk and formulating a national contingency plan makes absolute sense. I don’t think Madison and the rest would have much quarrel with that given the scientific developments of the last 240 years.

Where the CDC has gone so dramatically wrong is where it has strayed from that worthy task. Over time, the center’s function has metastasized into a nanny-state mega-exercise in social engineering. Instead of focusing on preparing for national epidemiological emergencies, the CDC spends its time on peripheral-at-best projects than range from the annoying — telling us all how bad McDonald’s and sugary drinks are for us — to the ridiculous, including studying the sex lives of fruit flies.

This is what makes the Democrats’ political rants about budget cuts being the source of the CDC’s woes so thoroughly preposterous. Any agency using taxpayer dollars to investigate amorous fruit flies has some room for a budgetary haircut.

You’ve gotta love President Barack Obama’s reaction. though. Apparently blindsided by the sudden realization there was a potentially more imminent threat to public health than glazed doughnuts, Obama creates an after-the-fact position of ebola czar (Shouldn’t the CDC director already fulfill that role?) and deploys the military to West Africa. Now, I’m generally something of a hawk, and certainly there is a critical role for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infection Diseases (USAMRIID). By definition, pretty much any infectious disease can be weaponized,  and I can understand sending a couple companies of infantry and the requisite support to protect the Army docs. But a call to federalize the National Guard? To what end? Ebola won’t be defeated by M-4s and the application of high explosives, no matter how precise American military technology has become.

There are three general lessons to be gleaned from all of this: government should limit itself to its proper role and focus on being good at that; most of the actual work involved in any emergency will occur at the local and state levels — in this case, with first responders, state and county health departments and local hospitals and medical professionals; if we lull ourselves into becoming dependent on the competency of federal government to handle a crises, we’re, well, buggered.

Unfortunately, the central lesson that the government should take home from its failures likely will be lost in a few weeks, when the current crisis plays out and the CDC requests a budget increase and returns its focus to fried foods and lonely fruit flies.