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America’s painfully slow response to the Ebola epidemic

America’s painfully slow response to the Ebola epidemic

Saturday, November 01, 2014, 20:37 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Dr. Terry F. Buss is a Fellow at the U.S.’s National Academy of Public Administration. He wrote this article exclusively for Tuoi Tre News.

The US has the most sophisticated and comprehensive system for preventing and controlling highly contagious epidemics. So why has the Obama Administration’s response to Ebola in Western Africa and the US been so slow, ineffective and confused? Critics of the Administration’s recent responses to major domestic – e.g., the disastrous rollout of the US national health insurance system – and foreign issues –e.g., the US response to the occupation of parts of Iraq and Syria by Islamic terrorists – offer some insights.

President Obama has made it abundantly clear that he has little or no interest in global issues. Obama wants to disengage. So, Ebola could not be farther down on his list of concerns, at least at the outset.

When Obama is forced to become involved in issues against his will, critics claim that his standard practice is to dither, hoping the issue goes away. Recall that Obama dismissed the threat posed by 30,000 Islamic militants, occupying Iraq and Syria. Ebola received much the same treatment. Obama likely was weary of elevating the Ebola issue in the run-up to the November mid-term elections wherein he could possibly lose the US Senate now controlled by his Democrat Party.

For many, Obama seems to believe that his speech making abilities are sufficient to quell most crises, as if his words had great power. But, Obama’s speechmaking has become much less persuasive according to critics as one crisis after another envelops his administration.

In foreign affairs, Obama has publically adopted “soft diplomacy” as his way of resolving crises. Key to this approach is “leading from behind,” that is, pressuring or convincing other countries or international organizations to take the lead in crisis response, with the US becoming just one of several partners. Again in Iraq and Syria, for example, Obama has refused to commit ground troops to the fight, demanding that others in the region do so. For Ebola, the Administration tried to work through African governments, the World Health Organization and other nations to address the epidemic. Critics suggest this slowed the response to Ebola as others waited for the US to take the lead.

Obama has been widely criticized for being a bystander in the management of the US government. For some, he seems to be surprised that things have gone wrong, not recognizing that he is the chief executive of the government with management responsibilities. The Administration has had major problems and scandals with the Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Administration, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), responsible for managing the Ebola crisis.

Consider this. The CDC in the early stages of the Ebola epidemic went to the mass media daily announcing that it had protocols to guide hospitals, trained medical staff across the country, and required equipment in place. None of these things were properly done. Management oversight appears lacking. Unfortunately, it will take a long while and a lot of resources to revise the health care response system nation-wide.

Additionally, critics suggest the Administration did not have the necessary administration in place to coordinate a national epidemic response. Both DHHS and CDC have offices whose mission is to coordinate health care responses to things like Ebola. Critics point out that these two units have been absent during the crisis. Many people wonder what these two organizations are doing!

Obama’s response to the lack of coordination was to bring on board someone to manage the Ebola crisis overall. Instead of choosing a person of high stature with experience in managing epidemics or disasters, or even an experienced military officer, Obama chose a political operative with no experience in any of these areas. Obama seems to believe, according to his critics, that Ebola is a communication/public relations problem rather than a crisis management disaster.

The Obama Administration has an abiding belief that science is the answer to many policy questions. Climate change, for example, is held to be scientifically validated for the administration. Those criticizing climate change policy will be attacked. Anyone watching or reading about the Ebola response will see that the Administration is trying to silence critics, saying they either do not understand science or that they are just being political. For Ebola, the Administration’s physicians have repeated ad infinitum that one cannot contract Ebola unless an effected person has a fever. No fever, no chance of infection. Yet credible medical studies have shown that about 13% of Ebola victims do not have fevers. At any rate, the slow response by the Administration for some critics resulted from its unwillingness to look more closely at alternatives to the way the Administration viewed the crisis.

Part of the slow response to Ebola, for some, was that the Obama Administration reengineered the CDC toward a more social agenda rather than toward its traditional mission of prevention and control. This was part of Obama’s agenda to transform America’s health care system. Under the Bush Administration, the director of the CDC spent six years restructuring the agency to better respond to crises. Under Obama, the new CDC director was instructed to address issues like eating fast foods, consuming soft drinks, and reducing smoking and alcohol drinking. CDC diverted money from finding an Ebola vaccination or treatment into these softer health issues. Now the Administration is justifying its poor response to Ebola by saying budget cuts left the agency short of money to respond to the crisis; but critics offer that it was the Administration that made the cuts.

A final point in explaining the slow Ebola response is that many believe Obama treats everything as a political issue, relying on public opinion polls and political calculations to determine his response to issues. In the early stages of Ebola, CDC medical personnel did everything they could to assure Americans they were not at risk of infection and everything was under control. Americans then had a very positive view of the CDC. But critics say that it was only after the Administration began to receive criticism, and CDC’s reputation declined, that it moved more quickly on the crisis.

Likely the Administration might be given some leeway for the slow, painful, dysfunctional response to Ebola had it had more success in other domestic and foreign policy arenas. For critics, taken in the context of other Administrative responses, Ebola just contributed to the growing list of incompetent actions. Only 40% of Americans think Obama is doing a good job!

Terry F. Buss

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