Here’s a concept: Let’s come up with an idea that would make things worse even if it worked, which it wouldn’t. That would describe the proposal to prevent all people coming from the three West African nations devastated by Ebola — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — from entering the United States. The U.S., it seems, is also ravaged by a growing disproportionate hysteria about Ebola, and most of all by cynical politicians, largely conservatives, who are exploiting the alarm for a chance to score some points against the Democratic president in the days leading up to the election. They’re trying to capitalize on an impression that he is dithering as this killer illness threatens public safety here in the homeland. Now they’ve even been joined by some craven Dems, like North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, who is in a close race and has reversed her position that a travel ban would be a bad idea, folding under the pressure of her voters seeking a simple solution to their fears.
As I said, it won’t work. Someone who really wants to get to the U.S. easily can exploit porous borders and huge accountability gaps in our travel system. Not only that, but efforts to stop Ebola at its source — which is West Africa — would be stymied because the aid workers sent to the region from this country wouldn’t be allowed to return. Do we make an exception for them, even if they’ve been exposed, as some have suggested? Then what would be the point?
If we actually did erect such a travel barrier, maybe we should include a blockade of Texas, since all the cases here have erupted in Dallas. And since one of the nurses who caught it subsequently flew Frontier Airlines from Dallas to Cleveland and back, perhaps we should add Ohio. For that matter, maybe we ought to ground Frontier while we’re at it, in spite of its very public sterilization of the affected plane. Frankly, given the airline’s recent pricing policies, charging extra for everything, I’m surprised it hasn’t levied an extra amount on passengers who want to travel in a disinfected seat.
Was that a cheap shot? Yes, it was, I’ll admit it, but so is the calculated way that politicians are using their simple-minded scare tactics. Add to this arson the cable-news networks that are fanning the flames in their amoral pursuit of ratings, and people don’t know what to think. So they don’t.
There are some things that can be done. First of all, let’s realize that as national dangers go, Ebola is very low on the list. What has so exacerbated the panic is the ridiculously inept public-communications effort from our medical leaders. Each time their reflexive assurances that this is no big deal prove to be false, they end up scaring the daylights out of everyone.
Maybe the first thing they should do is to really know what they’re doing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention certainly has not inspired a lot of confidence, and the performance of Dallas Presbyterian Hospital has been so embarrassing that the owners have done what all big corporations do when their failures become public: They hire a PR firm to come in and try to do damage control on their image.
Barack Obama could use a little help with that himself. After critics charged him with floundering around still again, the president took decisive action: He appointed a “czar” to take decisive actions for him against Ebola. Ron Klain, his choice, is absolutely qualified to take this on, most importantly to assure a freaked-out nation. His No. 1 attribute is that he’s not a doctor. The doctors are the experts, but they have their hands full correcting various mistakes and reining in their hubris. Ron Klain has experience with a ton of that at the highest levels of government, and can finesse the politicians who are our biggest danger.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.