Nearly 60 percent of Americans want the government to shut down flights to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, sources of the Ebola virus. Why isn’t the White House playing ball? One theory: because once again, President Barack Obama is serving his legacy at the expense of the country.
Six years ago he put his legacy-building healthcare legislation ahead of the need to create jobs and reboot our fragile economy. Today, his ambition to be a hero to Africa is undermining common sense approaches to protecting Americans from the Ebola virus.
At issue is the enormous popularity of George W. Bush in Africa, a love affair that highlights how little, by comparison, Mr. Obama has done for that continent. As The New York Times reported in 2013, Bush “is seen as a lifesaver who as president helped arrest a deadly epidemic [AIDS] and promoted development of impoverished lands.” As The Times noted, “During a final trip as president in early 2008, Mr. Bush was warmly greeted by huge crowds of the sort he never saw at home anymore.”
That’s a bitter pill for Mr. Obama, who makes little secret of his dislike for his predecessor and who, as our nation’s first black president, was expected to make great contributions to Africa. It must gall him that U.S. approval ratings in numerous important African countries have tumbled under his leadership.
According to Gallup, U.S. approval ratings in sub-Saharan Africa peaked at 85 percent in 2009; by 2013 they had plummeted to 64 percent. They explained the likely source of the drop: “Given Obama’s Kenyan heritage, many Africans likely expected Obama to pay more attention to Africa than they perceive he has.” In Kenya, the birthplace of the president’s father, approval of the U.S. leadership collapsed from 93 percent in 2009 to 68 percent by 2013.
When both 43 and 44 happened to overlap in Tanzania two years ago, Mr. Obama had to answer critics “who complain he has not done enough to build on [Mr. Bush’s] efforts.” Where has the White House fallen short? Anne Kamau, a fellow from the Africa Growth Initiative, as posted on the Brookings website, said the Obama administration has failed to build better business ties with Africa. She writes, “Brazil, India, China and Turkey have recognized and taken advantage of these opportunities; comparatively, the U.S. has not.”
Further, she argues the Obama government could do more by “engaging in publicly visible and commercially oriented diplomacy on the continent.” She doesn’t understand that this administration does not think “business first.” Our non-oil imports from sub-Saharan Africa in 2013 amounted to just $13 billion compared to overall U.S. imports of $2.7 trillion. That says it all.
The president, who opened his 2013 speech at the University of Cape Town by saying, “Some of you may be aware of this, but I actually took my first step into political life because of South Africa,” is desperate to rebuilding his standing. He is trying to do so in foolish and dangerous ways.
Sending 4,000 American troops to the epicenter of the viral outbreak, to help build medical facilities and generally contribute manpower to the stricken and chaotic nations, can only end in tragedy. This is not what our troops signed up for.
At the same time, President Obama is refusing to cancel flights to the United States from the most stricken nations. Other nations’ airlines starting banning flights to and from Liberia, Sierra Leon and Guinea in August. By the end of that month more than one third of international flights to the region had been cancelled. Countries in the area, including South Africa and Senegal, closed their borders with their neighbors to help stem the spread of the disease. Chad closed its border with Nigeria after that nation saw an outbreak of the deadly disease.
Instead of banning the flights, the White House has TSA workers taking the temperatures of passengers arriving at five U.S. airports. The fact that people may carry the virus for as much as 21 days before displaying any symptoms – including fever – renders this effort half-baked at best.
In fact, the entire response to the Ebola outbreak by our government so far seems half-baked. Tom Frieden, head of the Center for Disease Control, recently wrote on his blog, “The U.S. health system has been preparing since late March” for the arrival of the Ebola virus on our shores. In light of the death of Thomas Duncan in Dallas and infection of one of his healthcare providers, many Americans are wondering: what exactly was the nature of those preparations?
Numerous errors occurred in Dallas, where Mr. Duncan was treated and died, starting with the hospital sending the feverish Liberian visitor home. The apartment where the man was living was not sanitized for several days after his diagnosis was confirmed, and the hospital did not include on its monitoring list the nurse who has now contracted Ebola. Shouldn’t the authorities consider anyone who came in contact with the dying man at risk of contagion?
Let’s be honest: over those six months, the CDC failed totally to communicate the urgency of the Ebola threat, how to respond to it and how it might be transmitted. The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital where Mr. Duncan was treated is an 898-bed acute-care hospital. If the first U.S.-diagnosed case had shown up in a small town in the heartlands the lapses would be easier to understand.
We seem to be one of the few nations not taking the spread of Ebola seriously. Perhaps we are just a smidge overconfident. When Mr. Frieden assured the nation that we would “stop Ebola in its tracks” earlier this month, he listed several protocols that would keep the disease from spreading. Few of those appear to have been followed.
Mr. Frieden was previously Commissioner of New York City’s Health Department. Highlights of his time in that post include an aggressive anti-smoking media campaign and the successful (and controversial) effort to stamp out trans-fats. Given his past, he may have unwarranted confidence in the power of government. Critics have called him an “overzealous activist.” In facing down the Ebola virus, we hope he is that and more.
This originally appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of The Fiscal Times.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
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