The Ebola panic and good sense

Yuval Levin has a sensible article on NRO called “Lessons of the Ebola Crisis.” Levin believes that the Obama administration is basically right when it says we are not witnessing an outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. and that such an outbreak is unlikely in our highly developed public-health system. However, he also believes that critics are right to say we have witnessed serious failures in the response to the crisis that “should be cause for serious alarm and major improvement.”

Levin makes a point that I tried to advance this morning, namely that none of us — and least of all conservatives — should be surprised when government struggles to respond to an unexpected emergency like this one. As Levin puts it:

Th[e] crucial process of learning lessons has been hampered so far by a peculiar attitude that often emerges in our politics in times of crisis and imbues our debates with the wrong approach to learning from failure. The attitude is premised on the bizarre assumption that large institutions are hyper-competent by default, so that when they fail we should seek for nefarious causes.

Not only liberals (who are at least pretty consistent about making this ridiculous mistake) but also some conservatives who should know better respond with a mix of outrage and disgust to failures of government to contend effortlessly with daunting emergencies.

But do we really expect (or even want) our government to have the power and ability to smooth all of life’s edges and be ready in an instant to address the consequences of, say, a major hurricane or massive oil spill or deadly disease outbreak? What do we think that government would be doing with that power the rest of the time?

Democrats have tried to attribute the government’s poor initial response to the “nefarious cause” of budget cuts. But as Levin suggests, more funding would not have prevented the errors of judgment that plagued the government’s initial response. Nor is there any reason to believe that extra funds would have been dedicated to addressing Ebola, which has not been a priority concern of our public health system.

On the issue of a travel ban, Levin presents both sides. The argument against a ban is that it would “further undermine the economies of the stricken countries and so make it more likely that people, including people with Ebola, would flee those countries.” Thus, containing the disease would become more difficult.

Levin finds this argument a serious one because “allowing the disease to spread into densely populated parts of the world beyond the three nations now affected by it would ultimately be at least as dangerous to the United States as keeping passenger travel from those countries open at the moment.” However, he concludes that “conversations with a variety of public-health officials and journalists and others who have kept a close eye on this crisis have left me persuaded that the [proper] balance ultimately points to imposing a travel ban, and that it would be useful and important to do so now.”

The final lesson Levin offers is that we are thinking about the outbreak in West Africa in ways that underestimate the danger Ebola poses:

We are still thinking about it in terms of a crisis in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that could reach our shores by the various means that connect us to them. But the real danger, to us and to others, is probably far greater than that.

Our greatest worry should not be that the disease could get to the United States from those West African nations but that it will get to Nigeria’s larger population centers or to, say, India or other places with massive population density and weak public-health systems, and from there will become an epidemic throughout the third world.

The scale that this outbreak is now likely to reach in West Africa will make it rather difficult to prevent that, raising the risk of a far more colossal human catastrophe than the nightmare we are already witnessing and of a greater threat to the U.S. population.

Thus, in Levin’s view, the work of containment and prevention in West Africa, combined with intense efforts to develop treatments and vaccines, is what matters most.

I recommend reading the whole thing.