Ebola Hysteria and the Midterm Elections

Two weeks away from the November midterm elections, politicians on both sides of the aisle are cashing in and playing politics with the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. After the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visitor who recently became the first victim of the virus on American soil, Republican from Mitch McConnell (K.Y) to Ted Cruz (TX) have called for travel restrictions or outright ban of airline flights. Democrats, on the other hand, blamed the limited spread of the virus in the U.S. on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) budget cuts, even though the government institute received $6.8 billion ($200 million more than its $6.6billion FY2014 budget request) in FY2014 compared to $6.3 billion in FY2013. This Ebola hysteria demonstrates a lack of understanding of the virus, but, more importantly, it’s irresponsible and myopic of political leaders to rely on fear-mongering to score political points. As the Economist recently pointed out:

IN THE crowded field of Ebola alarmists, Rand Paul of Kentucky stands out. Before he was a Republican senator with presidential ambitions, he was an eye doctor. Apparently the Hippocratic oath does not cover panic-mongering: Dr Paul has popped up on talk-radio shows, alleging that when Barack Obama or his scientists say that Ebola is rather hard to catch, they are fibbing. Or, as he puts it, they are downplaying the risk that Ebola might spread across America for reasons of “political correctness”. Ebola is “incredibly transmissible”, Dr Paul has asserted, talking of doctors falling sick even after they suited up and took “every precaution”.

Ebola alarmists should know that the virus, which was originally discovered in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire, in 1976, is a poor man’s (rural) disease. To call for a travel or visa ban from affected countries in West Africa is a irrelevant, because the Obama administration already implemented screening measures for travelers from these parts of the world on their arrivals to the U.S.. In addition, “bushmeats” like monkey and fruit bats are not as popular to globetrotting African city dwellers. Having lived in Kinshasa, capital city of DRC, such meats are rare and expensive compared to beef, fish and imported chicken (thanks to EU subsidies). In contrast, in Equateur province, where the virus recently reappeared, smoked meat is a local delicacy. Since the recent reappearance of the virus in the region, for instance, monkey meat prices fell by slightly more than 40% from USD$10.81 to $6.48. Similarly, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa began in a remote region of Guinea, where authorities unsuccessfully banned bat soup to contain the spread of the virus. Second, there are no direct flights from the three Ebola-stricken West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. As the New York Times, highlighted today, “… a flight ban would have to ground connecting flights from Brussels, Amsterdam and other European cities.”

A visa ban for Ebola-affected countries would send a wrong message to African countries, especially after Obama held a summit attempting to build stronger economic ties with the continent less than two months ago. Moreover, after revoking the HIV travel ban in 2010, an Ebola visa ban would definitely be a step in the wrong direction given scientific facts about the virus and U.S. top-notch health infrastructure. Although certain countries in West Africa have sealed their borders and implemented travel restrictions, the U.S. is thousands of miles away and has the needed resources to limit its spread on American soil. Finally, the Republican party risks alienating African immigrants who are, for the most part, socially conservative. Relying on Ebola to get out the vote can backlash against the GOP, which should be courting this growing segment of the population. As the Times wrote today, demanding a visa ban might help the GOP win this year’s midterm elections, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory:

Campaigning on possible threats from undocumented immigrants — similar to claims that President Obama and the Democrats have left the country vulnerable to attacks from Islamic terrorists and the Ebola virus — may backfire after November. At that point, the party will have to start worrying about its appeal beyond the conservative voters it needs to turn out in midterm elections.

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