Nothing draws attention like the word genocide. The term is politically charged and easy to manipulate. When you talk about genocide, people pay attention. When you talk about a plague, they hope it’s happening somewhere else and then put it out of their minds.
Genocide targets a group, or even a country for extinction. A plague is not so selective, not even a disease like Ebola that we like to think is a problem only a few African nations we couldn’t locate on a map need to deal with.
Every plague has to start somewhere. Ebola has been confined to Africa for years. Outbreaks make the news and then die away. Not this time. There has been no holding back from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control as to just how serious the situation is. This urgent announcement came from the director of the CDC:
“The window of opportunity to stop Ebola from spreading widely throughout Africa and becoming a global threat for years to come is closing, but it is not yet closed,” Dr. Frieden continued. “If the world takes the immediate steps– which are direct requests from the front lines of the outbreak and the Presidents of each country – we can still turn this around.”1
Urgency is not something governments respond to very well. In the U.S. priorities are dictated by the necessities of politics that can take need off the table and replace it with a more attractive opportunity at the drop of a hat. Could that happen with Ebola?
Ebola plague battles politics for attention
Last summer the Obama administration pushed for an emergency supplemental request of $3.7 billion for what was repeatedly called a humanitarian crisis at the Southwest Border. Many of us preferred to call it a political crisis created as a last resort by a party and president desperate to make good on their promise of sweeping immigration legislation. The billions for the crisis the White House helped create would have gone to the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of State, Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement divisions.2 That’s how government responds when urgency has a political payoff and there is a chance to spread some cash around. Fortunately, Republicans said no and now we don’t hear much about the border. By this time, Ebola had been picking up steam for months.
The White House asked for $88 million in the newest spending bill to combat the Ebola outbreak. This was 2.38% of the border funding request. Nevertheless, the president sent reassuring words to the countries fighting the epidemic:
You are not alone. Together, we can treat those who are sick with respect and dignity. We can save lives. And our countries can work together to improve public health, so this kind of outbreak doesn’t happen again. In this urgent work — and in building a stronger and more prosperous Africa — you’ll continue to have a partner in me and in the United States of America.3
They will have a lot better partner if Ebola shows its face in America.* Plagues are equal opportunity killers, especially when they mutate. A disease that takes advantage of lack of information or poor sanitation today may decide to ignore social class tomorrow and waft through wealthy, educated communities.
Planning for genocide vs. planning for a plague
In politics, foresight can be less advantageous than a crisis. A crisis forces action. This is not a good thing when you are battling a plague because a disease like Ebola can get out of control. By the time you reach crisis stage, you have a catastrophe. It is not so good when you are talking about mass killing and genocide either, because once people are dead it’s very hard to bring them back. We are familiar with the slow march to war, though. Pulling together an international coalition is even slower. For Ebola, at least, we already have the commitment.
The genocide label has been slapped on the violence in Iraq and Syria. Secretary of State Kerry warned that:
The stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer, and today’s crisis underscores the stakes profoundly. ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide. For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it.4
As charges of genocide continue to mount, we are in the process of deciding how to best kill thousands of terrorists. This is an expensive proposition following a hefty Iraq war tab. Now we are getting started again, ready to throw more money and resources at a situation created by listening to liberal political demands to get out of Iraq.
With genocide people do the killing. That makes genocide controllable if you are willing to dedicate the resources to stop it. Plagues don’t work that way. They can become uncontrollable to the point where no amount of resources will stop the problem. With a disease as horrible and with as high a mortality rate as Ebola, one would think that there would be no end to our dedication to stop it.
Ebola doesn’t have any political sensibilities, though how we deal with it does. The difference between how much we spend to contain it and how quickly we commit to eradicating the disease will have a lot to do with where it turns up next.
We will always have billions, even trillions to spend on politically popular problems. The Obama administration wants us to spend lots of money to fix crises it had a hand in creating. Some of these problems can no longer be ignored. Has that caused us to treat Ebola too lightly? We always seem to find money to spend on war and phony political emergencies, so why are we hesitant to throw everything we have at stopping this outbreak?
*UPDATE September 30, 2014: Ebola is here. A case has been reported in Dallas, Texas. Watch lawmakers scamper to cover their tracks.