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Robert Reich: Getting a Grip on Ebola

Ebola is not a crisis in the United States.

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Image from Flickr user Phil Moyer.

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

We have to get a grip. Ebola is not a crisis in the United States. One person has died and two people are infected with his body fluids.

The real crisis is the hysteria over Ebola that’s being fed by media outlets seeking sensationalism and politicians posturing for the midterm elections.

That hysteria is causing us to lose our heads. Parents have pulled their children out of a middle school after learning the school’s principal had traveled to Zambia. Zambia happens to be in Africa but it has not even had a single case of Ebola.

A teacher at an elementary school has been placed on paid leave because parents were concerned he might have contracted the Ebola virus. When and how? During a recent trip to Dallas for an educational conference.

Are we planning to quarantine Dallas next?

Some politicians from both parties are demanding an end to commercial flights between the United States and several West African countries. But there are no direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where Ebola is taking its biggest toll.

So do they want to ban all commercial flights that might contain someone from any of these countries, who might have transferred planes? That would cover just about all commercial flights coming from outside the United States.

If the disease is allowed to spread in these places, the entire world could be imperiled.

The most important thing we can do to prevent Ebola from ever becoming a crisis in the United States is to help Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where 10,000 new cases could crop up weekly unless the spread of the virus is slowed soon.

Isolating these poor nations would only make their situation worse. Does anyone seriously believe we could quarantine hundreds of thousands of infected people a continent away who are infecting others?

The truth is quite the opposite. If the disease is allowed to spread in these places, the entire world could be imperiled.

These nations desperately need medical professionals in the field, more medical resources, isolation facilities, and systems in place to detect early cases.

Even at this stage, that’s not an impossible task. Nigeria is succeeding in checking the spread of the disease. It has not had a new case of Ebola in over a month.

But I’m worried about America. I’m not worried about Ebola. I’m worried about our confidence and courage.

As if we have the option. As if we live on another planet.

Every time a global crisis arises these days—the drug war in Latin America, terrorism in the Middle East, climate change that’s straining global food and water supplies and threatening many parts of the world with flooding – the knee-jerk response of some Americans is to stop it at our borders.

As if we have the option. As if we live on another planet.

What’s wrong with us? We never used to blink at taking a leadership role in the world. And we understood leadership often required something other than drones and bombs.

We accepted global leadership not just for humanitarian reasons but also because it was in our own best interest. We knew we couldn’t isolate ourselves from trouble. There was no place to hide.

After World War II, we rebuilt Europe and Japan. Belatedly, we achieved peace in Kosovo. We almost eradicated polio. We took on tuberculosis, worldwide.

Now even Cuba is doing more on the ground in West Africa than we are. It’s dispatching hundreds of doctors and nurses to the front lines. The first group of 165 arrived in Sierra Leone in the past few days.

Where are we?

We’re not even paying attention to health crises right under our own noses.

More people are killed by stray bullets every day in America than have been killed by Ebola here. More are dying because of poverty and hunger.

We’re not even getting a flu shot to all Americans who need one.

More American kids are getting asthma because their homes are located next to major highways. One out of three of our children is obese, at risk of early-onset diabetes.

We’re not even getting a flu shot to all Americans who need one.

Instead, we bicker. For the last eighteen months, Republicans have been blocking confirmation of a Surgeon General.

Why? Because the President’s nominee voiced support for expanded background checks for gun purchases, and the National Rifle Association objected.

We’ve got to get our priorities straight. Media outlets that are exploiting Ebola because they want a sensational story and politicians using it to their own ends ought to be ashamed.

Public fear isn’t something to be played with.

There’s a huge job to be done, here and abroad. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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