In West Africa, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people are dying from Ebola. But so far at least, the news on this side of the ocean is good. To date, the number of U.S. and Canadian residents killed by the virus is zero.
This would seem to be cause for modest optimism. But not in the United States, where a combination of politics, paranoia and 24/7 coverage has created a plague of fear and recrimination. Populist superstar Glenn Beck has been ranting about Ebola on his radio show every day for weeks. "It's insane!" he insists. "They are playing with our lives!"
But what's really insane is the opportunism that has infected American politics. The midterm elections are just around the corner and control of the Senate hangs in the balance, so the recriminations are especially shrill. Republicans say the crisis is all President Barack Obama's fault. Democrats say it's all the Republicans' fault. And everybody faults the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for missteps that, while serious, were probably not all that surprising for any big bureaucracy confronted with a novel and complex emergency.
In this fevered environment, panic has spread much faster than the actual disease. In Dallas, where one West African visitor died of Ebola and two nurses were infected, four schools shut down. In Mississippi, parents pulled their kids from school after they found out that the principal had been to Zambia (where there is no Ebola). A Caribbean cruise ship was turned away by Belize and Mexico, and had to return to port in the United States because a passenger had handled lab samples from the infected West African man. The governor of Florida demanded that the CDC track down everyone aboard a plane that had landed in Fort Lauderdale – because one of the infected nurses had flown to Dallas on the same plane the day before.
Virtually all the Fox TV hosts, most Republicans and a good many Democrats appear to agree that the CDC has displayed grotesque incompetence and Mr. Obama has failed the test of leadership. Even moderate commentators are wondering whether this will be Mr. Obama's Hurricane Katrina. Most Americans think the United States should ban air traffic from West Africa, even though virtually all public health officials advocate otherwise. These Americans can't understand why their government hasn't taken this step. Fox's Bill O'Reilly can tell them why: political correctness. In his view, Mr. Obama doesn't want to offend the black vote, which is crucial to his midterm election hopes.
But the Democrats are demagoguing too. They claim that if the Republicans hadn't cut research funding, we'd probably have a vaccine by now. "Republican cuts kill," charges an ad from a liberal group called The Agenda Project. The ad features gruesome pictures of dead Africans bleeding from the mouth. Liberals accuse people who support a travel ban of being ignorant and racist.
In fact, Mr. Obama hasn't done a great job with the Ebola crisis. In September, he said it was "unlikely" that someone with Ebola would reach American shores, and reassured people that all their institutions were totally on the ball – which turned out to be laughably untrue. Then, when the vomit hit the fan, he appointed an Ebola "czar" with no background in medicine or public health. The czar is a political operative whose job is obviously not to improve public safety, but to improve the messaging.
It's no shock that Americans are cynical about their institutions. Many of those institutions have let them down badly. The problem isn't corruption – it's incompetence. When the Secret Service can't even keep the White House safe, why should people trust their government to protect them from Ebola?
The good news is that two infected nurses look like the only American casualties of the screw-ups. No doubt the system has learned from its mistakes – Ebola will be contained. That's more than you can say for the toxic politics that spread the panic.