Bold Cowardice

Ebola is a terrible disease, and a godsend to the cable news networks. They finally get more than the usual political junkies and disaster whores to watch what they’ve got for more than half a minute. Now they’ve got people shouting at each other about how we should shut down air travel from the African nations in trouble with Ebola, or maybe all of Africa. We’re all going to die if we don’t. Then, on the other side, it’s some medical expert saying that misses the point and is a waste of time – we know how people get the disease, and it’s hard to get, and that will make a mess of things for no good reason. Only those who have worked with Ebola patients are at risk, if they were momentarily careless – it’s not everyone flying in from Africa – and they are not at all contagious until they start showing symptoms. If after twenty-one days, the incubation period of the virus, they show no symptoms, then there never was a problem – and there’s no problem while they wait. You can’t catch anything from these few people during that time – and if they become symptomatic, it’s still hard to catch anything from them. That fellow who died in Dallas, the only one so far over here, lived in a little apartment with a lot of folks, and none of them, including his fiancée, caught anything. They waited in isolation for their twenty-one days, and they walked away just fine. They didn’t die, even if no one will get near them now. That’s absurd. There are no Ebola cooties.

That’s why President Obama invited the nurse who treated that now-dead guy and did get Ebola – because that hospital in Dallas was hopelessly incompetent or certainly unprepared – to the White House after she recovered. He gave her a big hug. He was sending a message. Look, folks, no cooties! He was suggesting we should all calm down. One person here has died. You won’t get Ebola from being sneezed on by someone whose brother knew someone who worked at the coffee shop across the street from a hospital down the street from the hospital where someone showed up with a fever and was sure they had Ebola. It’s not airborne and it doesn’t cling to and live on surfaces, like doorknobs. You have to come in contact with the body fluids of someone finally showing symptoms – blood, vomit, saliva – that sort of thing.

No, you’re not going to get Ebola. That’s why Mayor de Blasio didn’t shut down the subway system in New York after that doctor, just returned from Africa, took the subway to Brooklyn the day before he started showing symptoms. There was and is no danger, and that subway system is useful. It wasn’t like that in northeastern Ohio, where Ebola patient Amber Vinson had visited her mother just days before being diagnosed. There officials did what seemed best at the time, out of an “abundance of caution” of course:

Two Cleveland-area school districts shut down entirely on Thursday, citing one teacher who had unspecified contact with an infected patient and another who was on a different flight “but perhaps the same aircraft” as Vinson – a step that public health officials deemed unnecessary. Ohio health officials also issued new guidelines on Thursday that go well beyond what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended: The state says that even those who’ve exchanged a simple handshake with an infected individual should be quarantined for 21 days if they’re not wearing protective gear, even though the disease is not airborne and cannot be transmitted through casual contact. Ohio officials also recommend that those who have been “within a three-foot radius” of an infected individual for a prolonged time should monitor themselves…

That will calm the public, or cause more panic. Should we panic? That’s where the cable news shows can boost their ratings to the sky. We have a controversy! Bring on someone to argue there’s nothing wrong with a travel ban. It only makes sense, because what do these doctors know? Sure, they’ve been treating Ebola outbreaks for decades, but what do they really know? On Fox News there’s talk about how Ebola could be airborne. Viruses mutate, and this one could. There’s no evidence it has, or will, but you never know. CNN ran a long segment on how the incubation period could be far longer than anyone really knows, with the appropriate dissenting experts, who were all misreading the carefully compiled data over all the years – but it was a compelling segment, not repeated – the link is gone now. But why not present both sides? Science and the facts say one thing. Stay tuned for our next guest, who says science and facts are wrong, and we’re all gonna die. People stay tuned. Revenues rise.

And then there’s the show no one watches on the cable news channel no one watches:

During an exchange Monday on the country’s response to Ebola, MSNBC personality and “Morning Joe” regular Donny Deutsch may have unwittingly provided fodder to Fox News.

Citing a recent piece by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Deutsçh expressed annoyance at the hysteria over the outbreak.

“I don’t know if you guys feel this. Robert Reich wrote a piece that touched on this that we’re kind of a nation of cowards now. Every time I run into somebody who’s on north shore of Long Island – ‘I’m afraid of Ebola’ – it’s just, shut up. You know, are you not getting it, yes, this is something that’s serious. Just stop it. Stop it.”

The show’s host Joe Scarborough said that the widespread fear is a byproduct of a lack of trust in leaders.

“I also think they’re cowards,” Deutsch said.

Yeah, yeah – our current leaders are cowards and fools – the Fox News line – but Robert Reich was making a different point:

We have to get a grip. Ebola is not a crisis in the United States. One person has died and two people are infected with his body fluids. The real crisis is the hysteria over Ebola that’s being fed by media outlets seeking sensationalism and politicians posturing for the midterm elections.

The skinny black guy who hates America isn’t running for anything. Others are running for House and Senate seats and governorships, and they’re the problem:

Some politicians from both parties are demanding an end to commercial flights between the United States and several West African countries. But there are no direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where Ebola is taking its biggest toll.

So do they want to ban all commercial flights that might contain someone from any of these countries, who might have transferred planes? That would cover just about all commercial flights coming from outside the United States.

The most important thing we can do to prevent Ebola from ever becoming a crisis in the United States is to help Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where 10,000 new cases could crop up weekly unless the spread of the virus is slowed soon.

Isolating these poor nations would only make their situation worse. Does anyone seriously believe we could quarantine hundreds of thousands of infected people a continent away who are infecting others?

We should go fix things there, so things don’t get out of hand here, and we didn’t used to be this cowardly:

What’s wrong with us? We never used to blink at taking a leadership role in the world. And we understood leadership often required something other than drones and bombs.

We accepted global leadership not just for humanitarian reasons but also because it was in our own best interest. We knew we couldn’t isolate ourselves from trouble. There was no place to hide.

After World War II, we rebuilt Europe and Japan. Belatedly, we achieved peace in Kosovo. We almost eradicated polio. We took on tuberculosis, worldwide.

Now even Cuba is doing more on the ground in West Africa than we are. It’s dispatching hundreds of doctors and nurses to the front lines. The first group of 165 arrived in Sierra Leone in the past few days.

Where are we?

We’re here:

More people are killed by stray bullets every day in America than have been killed by Ebola here. More are dying because of poverty and hunger.

More American kids are getting asthma because their homes are located next to major highways. One out of three of our children are obese, at risk of early-onset diabetes.

We’re not even getting a flu shot to all Americans who need one.

Instead, we bicker. For the last eight months, Republicans have been blocking confirmation of a Surgeon General.

Why? Because the President’s nominee voiced support for expanded background checks for gun purchases, and the National Rifle Association objected.

Obama isn’t the coward here. We could be bold and fix the problem over there – which Obama is trying to do even if that panics Republicans who love our troops and don’t want them to die – instead of being bold by shutting down air travel and tossing a few people who are no danger to public health into state-run quarantine, with guards and all. That’s bold, but it’s stupid, and it for two governors, it didn’t go well at all:

Shifting stances and a lack of clear standards from the governors of New York and New Jersey over their Ebola quarantine policy left critics and even some allies questioning on Monday whether the two men had fully worked through the details before they announced it.

In New York, local health officials said on Monday that they had not yet received any details of the three-day-old Ebola quarantine policy they are charged with enforcing.

In New Jersey, requests for such specifics were met with six sentences from a Friday news release.

Governors Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that they were imposing their strict new mandatory quarantine because standards from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been inadequate.

But on Monday, faced with criticism from the nurse who had been detained in Newark as the test case of the new quarantine, Mr. Christie said the CDC – not New Jersey – had been responsible for hospitalizing her and giving her the Ebola test in the first place.

That was nonsense:

Mr. Christie first issued an executive order on Ebola on Wednesday, and in a news conference that day said he was content with the screening and policies in place. Less than 48 hours later, he and Mr. Cuomo, at a hastily arranged news conference, dismissed federal standards as shifting and inadequate.

In what Mr. Christie called “tough, common-sense policy,” the governors on Friday outlined a mandatory twenty-one-day quarantine for travelers who had direct contact with Ebola patients.

But on Monday, after fierce criticism from a nurse detained in Newark, Mr. Christie announced she was being released after three days of quarantine. He said Maine, where she lives, would determine her treatment.

But the CDC made him do it, whatever it was, and Dylan Scott fills in the details:

If anything is clear from the reporting of the nurse who was quarantined in a New Jersey hospital over Ebola fears, it’s that the actual quarantine itself was handled miserably.

Nurse Kaci Hickox, who returned to the U.S. via Newark airport Friday after treating Ebola patients for Doctors without Borders in Sierra Leone, described her treatment as “a frenzy of disorganization.” She was so flustered that a forehead reading showed her with a fever – which was then used as reason to quarantine her. Later, they took her temperature again and no fever registered. She was kept in quarantine anyway.

Further reported details of Hickox’s predicament made clear that, although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were anxious to show resolve and order the quarantine, their local health officials weren’t ready to carry out the order in any way that resembled humane treatment.

According to CNN, Hickox was placed in a tent inside the isolation ward at University Hospital in Newark almost simultaneously to the quarantine policy being put in effect. She was not allowed to take her luggage with her into quarantine and was forced to wear paper scrubs. She had no shower or flushable toilet – she also lacked any form of entertainment, no television and no reading materials. She had to speak with her lawyers through a narrow window in the tent.

She said she mostly spent her time staring at walls – until she started to take her story national in a first-person narrative for the Dallas Morning News and in her Sunday interview with CNN.

Then things blew up:

Almost as soon as these details started to leak, the hospital appeared to scramble to set right what was quickly becoming a public relations disaster. That in turn is emblematic of the entire episode, in which what was seen as a political sure thing faced a harsh backlash and eventual capitulation.

“The patient has computer access, use of her cell phone, reading material (magazines, newspaper) and requested and has received take-out food and drink,” the university said in an update as reports of the quarantine’s conditions spread, per CNN.

Christie and Cuomo announced the quarantine policy late on Friday and it was effectively undone by Monday morning. First, they apparently failed to notify any of the local authorities involved. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that neither he nor his health department was consulted about the quarantine. Nor did the state authorities confer with the White House.

They were being bold, and stupid:

The efficacy of the quarantine was questioned by New York City Health Commissioner Mary Basset, according to the New York Daily News. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, made the rounds on the Sunday morning shows and criticized the policies.

“I don’t want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made. But we have to be careful that there aren’t unintended consequences,” he said on Meet the Press. “We need to treat them, returning people, with respect, and make sure that they’re really heroes. So the idea that we’re being a little bit draconian, there are other ways to protect.”

At first, Christie in particular was defiant. He said Sunday morning that he had “no second thoughts” about instituting the quarantine. But that confidence lasted just 24 hours more.

By Sunday evening, Cuomo was revising his quarantine policy, per the New York Times, ordering that patients could spend their time at home. By Monday morning, with everybody from the White House to almost any medical authority who had spoken publicly on the issue urging a more restrained response, Christie said that Hickox could spend the remainder of her 21 days at home.

Christie’s office did what it could to save face after that announcement, but the speed of the reversal crystallized what had really been clear from the beginning: This whole thing had been botched.

But that had been bold. That should count for something, and it did count for something:

Although there have been only four confirmed diagnoses of Ebola on US soil, 4 in 10 Americans worry that they or a family member might contract the virus, and wide majorities still support travel restrictions on those returning from west Africa, polls find. Moreover, public confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle Ebola is dropping, according to a recent Gallup poll.

An unscientific poll on on Monday afternoon showed that 55 percent of respondents said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is doing the best job of responding to the Ebola crisis. President Obama was second at 20 percent.

People like bold, not smart, even if this was a cowardly thing to do out of fear, and misinformed – but the woman had come from Africa! She had worked with Ebola patients! If the public is scared silly, and cowardly about what is not a major problem, a politician will go with that. He will be boldly cowardly. There are votes there, and Chris Christie had been the tough guy:

While in Florida campaigning for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Christie stood by New Jersey’s quarantine policy.

“I know she didn’t want to be there. No one ever wants to be in the hospital, I suspect, and so I understand that,” he told reporters. “But the fact is I have a much greater, bigger responsibility to the people and the public, and so I think when she has time to reflect she will understand that as well.”

Digby (Heather Parton) doesn’t understand:

No, she is not a silly bimbo who didn’t understand her situation and “upon reflection” will understand that Daddy Knew Best. She is a medical professional, an epidemiology specialist, who knows very well that Chris Christie is completely ignorant about protecting the public from this disease and had no business spending several days talking about her as if she was a spoiled child who needed to go to bed without her supper. He betrayed his ignorance by repeatedly saying she was “ill” and hoping that she “recovered” even though she has tested negative and has no symptoms at all. (It was assumed that he meant she had Ebola but looking more closely at his comments it’s possible that he was saying she was having a mental breakdown. That’s what gaslighting pigs like Christie commonly do…)

Judging from what I read around the internet this week-end, the right-wingers think Christie’s jackboots are awesome. He can lock up nurses in FEMA camps all day long on a whim and that’s fine with them.

Yeah, but there’s a problem with that:

Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University who has been in touch with Hickox about her legal options, said he thought the quarantine order was illegal and unconstitutional. He noted that since you can’t catch Ebola from someone unless they are both infected and showing symptoms, Hickox poses no danger to the public. “The courts are very suspicious when you deny a whole class of people their liberty,” he said. “She’s being detained because she’s a member of a large class of people who happened to have been in the region.”

That may not matter. There was the doctor who rode the subway and is now in isolation with full-blown Ebola, Craig Spenser, and Jason Koebler, who visited the same bowling alley in Brooklyn as Spencer on that Wednesday night:

I know how Ebola is spread. I’ve spent lots of time writing about it and researching it and on calls with the Centers for Disease Control and watching press conferences and interviewing doctors. I know I don’t have Ebola. And still, all I could think about was whether or not I had touched or even seen this guy – only part of it being morbid curiosity. Maybe that’s the power of this thing. I’m a (relatively) rational and highly informed person (on this issue), and still I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit worried.

He’s frightened, and knows he shouldn’t be, but still is, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza points out how useful that is right now at election time:

The country is as anxious and uncertain as it’s been in a very long time. Much of that anxiety had been laid at the feet of a deeply uncertain economic situation (the broad indicators improving without much to show for it closer to the ground) and the turbulence abroad (the Islamic State, Russia, the Middle East, etc.) coupled with a broader sense that the institutions that we once relied on (government, church, the justice system) are no longer reliable.

That sense of drift – caught between the old way of doing things and a not-yet-realized new way of doing things – is palpable in polling (huge majorities who say the country is headed in the wrong direction, a desire to get rid of everyone in Congress in one fell swoop) and in conversations I’ve had both with political professionals and average people. Ebola – with its sky-high mortality rate and lack of a vaccine – dovetails perfectly with those existing fears and anxieties.

Paul Waldman, listening to Senator Pat Roberts call for hearings on how to shut the borders and keep us safe, is just tired of it all:

Here’s what I’d like to hear a candidate say when asked about this: “I don’t have an Ebola policy, because I’m running to be a legislator. It’s the job of legislators to do things like set budgets, but when there’s an actual outbreak of an infectious disease somewhere in the world, we should step back and let the people who actually know what they’re doing handle things. In this case, that’s the Centers for Disease Control. This is why we have a CDC in the first place, because if we were relying on politicians to keep us safe from infectious diseases, we’d really be screwed.”

You can call that an abdication of responsibility, but it isn’t. Even if Congress has an important role to play in setting policy priorities for agencies like the CDC, once there’s a potential crisis occurring, the idea that a bunch of yahoos like Pat Roberts should be determining the details of our response is absurd.

The same could be said for these two governors, but they both know that bold cowardice is what the people want, because it makes the frightened cowardly public feel better about being so stupid. The public knows that we’re not all going to die, but the public also feels that might be so, and also knows that this feeling is irrational, if not absurd. That sort of thing can make you hate yourself. That’s why they need politicians like Christie and Cuomo, to resolve that internal conflict. There are, however, other possible resolutions. Get over it. Worry about some actual problems.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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