The Risk of Ebola

Chairman Mao once remarked “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” It would appear that we are in a period of “utter chaos.” First, ISIS dominated the news. Now we have the Ebola “outbreak.” The situation is “excellent” from a political perspective precisely because crises (real or constructed) provide windows of opportunity for offering explanations and policy proposals that may have little direct connection to the underlying reality.

It remains to be seen whether Ebola will become a genuine risk in the US. Given everything I know about risk regulation, I have been a bit skeptical about the media coverage of the Ebola “outbreak,” although when fundraisers are cancelled, it gives me pause (unless polling mysteriously entered the calculus).

Regardless of risk, Ebola may continue to attract attention precisely because it creates an opportunity to revisit key arguments about policy and the role of the state in society. As Megan McArdle notes:

You might find this surprising. The Ebola virus is not running for office. It does not have a policy platform, or any campaign white papers on burning issues. It doesn’t even vote. So how could it neatly validate all our preconceived positions on government spending, immigration policy, and the proper role of the state in our health care system? Stranger still: How could it validate them so beautifully on both left and right?

Drawing on McArdle: the problem is the Ebola “outbreak” (or more precisely, two cases of Ebola contracted in a single hospital). The explanations include (1). A failure to protect our borders; (2) A failure to fund adequately the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control; (3) The inadequacy of anything short of a single-payer system of health care; (4) Obama’s failures as president or the austerity policies of the Republican Congress (5) Our failure to deal with climate change; and (5) The growing trends in income inequality).

In some ways, the “crisis” of Ebola seems to resemble the current concerns over ISIS-ISIL. The real nature of the risk to national security is far less important than the multiple ways in which a situation can be framed as a means of supporting pre-exiting political arguments and solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions rarely involve a reduction in the role of the state or an expansion of civil liberties.

Bottom line: the greatest risk posed by Ebola may be the political response.


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