There's something... different... between the 2014 and 2019 Ebola outbreaks.
The second biggest outbreak of the Ebola virus in history is happening right now, primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Almost 1,900 people have died to this point, and efforts to get the outbreak under control have been hampered by sectarian violence. There’s a greater-than-zero chance, though, that those efforts have also been hampered by the U.S. not quite giving as much of a shit this time around.
The enormous 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, which killed more than 11,000 people, eventually involved a massive American military effort. President Obama, at the advice of the White House science office that currently does [shrug emoji], authorized a deployment that encompassed 3,000 troops and more than 6,000 overall personnel; they essentially set up a massive high-tech hospital in a couple of weeks, and spread out into the region to try and stop transmission. It wasn’t only this response that stopped the outbreak, but there is no question that it helped; the CDC estimated that as many as 1.4 million people could have been infected without some serious change in the outbreak’s trajectory. It ended up stopping short of 29,000 total infected.
Now, there are some stark differences between 2014 and today’s outbreak. The DRC, and in particular the regions where the outbreak is centered, is not quite as accessible for a large US intervention; we lack the strong diplomatic ties with that country that we have with Liberia; and the president is now a racist dipshit who couldn’t care less about how many people in the DRC die and probably couldn’t point to the country on a map.
In 2014, Trump spent a month yelling at the sky about Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis. He tweeted about it 49 times in a single month, and went on television repeatedly, calling for travel bans and prosecutions and saying over and over how stupid the president was for wanting to, you know, help.
The actual experts at the White House at the time convinced Obama that trying to close airports and borders would backfire, and they were right. No bans were implemented, the “thousands of poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers” did not all come home infected with the virus, and Trump has literally not mentioned the disease once since 2014. I would put the odds that he even knows the outbreak is happening at… what, 30/70?
Now, it obviously isn’t necessary for the president to know about something for other parts of the government to get involved, and that’s the case here. The CDC has a few hundred people working in the region, and they helped train a bunch of DRC health workers as well. And honestly, given that his entire schtick the last time around was, more or less, “build a wall around Africa,” it’s probably better if Trump stays away from this one.
But that doesn’t make it any less fucked that the White House is generally unconcerned by a major international health crisis, and that if they suddenly did become concerned there is no indication they have the requisite expertise to manage it well. After two years, Trump finally filled the vacancy at the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (the position that traditionally doubles as the presidential science advisor) with a surprisingly decent choice, but I remain skeptical that he could actually pick Kelvin Droegemeier out of a lineup, let alone remember his name.
There’s still a chance the current Ebola outbreak is brought under control soon, regardless of U.S. intervention. But there’s also a chance it reaches Kinshasa or other major population centers and balloons toward the catastrophic. If that happens, the utter contempt for science and expertise is going make it so, so much worse.
It turns out that there is plenty of room to be a jackass about the Ebola outbreak. Writing at the New Yorker, Richard Preston is just asking questions: “Is Ebola Evolving Into A More Deadly Virus?”
Betteridge’s Law notwithstanding, this is pretty dumb. It has some decent basic info on the virus and its potential for mutation, but the piece clearly wasn’t exactly fact-checked into the ground.
And that sort of carelessness isn’t the primary issue. Journalist Amy Maxmen—pretty much the best reporter on the Ebola virus for a while now—made some good points about how useless this whole story is.
“It’s just a mix of rehashed news about the outbreak; high school textbook descriptions of the virus & evolution; studies that asked this question in 2016 and found no evidence for it; culminating in, BUT STILL IT COULD,” she tweeted. She added that if she had the gall to pitch something so thin to a place like the New Yorker, she’d get ignored. Richard Preston, though—that’s the guy we want writing about the intricacies of viral evolution, the guy with a four-part non-fiction book series called “Dark Biology,” but also a novel called “The Cobra Event” and another that he finished for Michael Crichton (that stalwart of sound science) after Crichton died in 2008. Apparently his new book (“Crisis in the Red Zone”) involves “rocket vomiting”?
Maxmen is right—what is it about a massive outbreak of a deadly disease that isn’t somehow grabby enough that you have to invent the “OMG IS IT GOING AIRBORNE???!?” narrative every couple of years. And what is it about prestigious legacy media outlets that let their a-tad-too-comfy legacy male writers mangle science so blatantly every now and again (ahem, Gladwell)? I, too, am just asking questions.
And this isn’t just grouchy science writer banter, honestly. What if that sort of tidbit—“the Ebola virus is becoming deadlier”—found its way back to, oh I don’t know, Stephen Miller? What would that do to any potential help the U.S. might be willing to offer? President Stop The Flights is going to hear about SuperMegaEbola and suddenly change his tune? It’s a scary enough disease as it is—almost 70 percent of all cases in the current outbreak have been fatal. We could do without the horror movie twists.
I wrote about Frank Luntz, the guy who essentially wrote the GOP playbook for climate change denial in the early 2000s, and how he doesn’t deserve a redemption narrative and we don’t need his cynical ass anyway. For the New Republic. Frank, uh, didn’t like it much.
These photos of abandoned ski resorts in the rapidly warming Alps are wild.
Rise of the “ecofascist” ideology, mentioned in the El Paso shooter’s screed. Scary shit.
notes from [gestures around]
This is a bit of a placeholder. My wife and I are leaving the U.S. for some indeterminate period of time on September 1; in future editions, I’ll try and include something about where we’ve been staying. Not sure exactly what just yet, but we’ll be in Indonesia to start, so we’ll see how this idea goes.