Ebola, ‘Scaremongering,’ and the Epidemiology of Interventionism

The U.S. government is good at doing what it’s not supposed to be doing – invading other countries without provocation, utilizing "soft power" in order to pull off regime change, enriching politically favored economic interests under the guise of promoting "democracy" – and very bad at doing what it really ought to be doing, i.e. protecting Americans from actual physical harm emanating from overseas.

Overthrowing "rogue" regimes? Check!

Protecting the American people from highly contagious diseases? Forget about it.

Over 300 U.S. troops have been sent to Liberia, the epicenter of the current Ebola outbreak, with 700 expected in the country by the end of October. As many as 4000 are projected to be part of the effort eventually, although officials maintain that this number is likely to be variable. Their purpose? According to this Associated Press report:

"The Marines and their aircraft will help with air transportation and ferrying of supplies, overcoming road congestion in Monrovia and bad roads outside the capital, said Capt. R. Carter Langston, spokesman for the U.S. mission. A priority will be transporting building materials to treatment unit sites. The U.S. has said it will oversee construction of 17 treatment units with 100 beds each."

So we’re sending hundreds, possibly thousands of U.S. soldiers in order to … direct traffic?

Senator Rand Paul has challenged this policy, raising the possibility of a planeload of U.S. soldiers exposed to the virulent Ebola virus returning to American shores – and spreading the virus in this country, with catastrophic results. He’s been attacked for this by the Obama-loving media for "scaremongering," as the Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn puts it:

"Rand Paul, mind you, is a doctor and should know better than to spread skepticism or downright misinformation about public health issues. But instead, he is using Ebola to not only attack President Obama (as are other Republicans, natch) but to push his extremist anti-government agenda that goes beyond healthy skepticism to tin-foil hat conspiracy land.

"Though here it’s worth noting Rand’s hypocrisy – the health workers who are contracting Ebola don’t have adequate protective gear, something the United States might be able to help with if we would actually fund public health and foreign aid instead of slashing it."

A Dallas health worker who did everything but wear a suit of armor while treating the first U.S. patient has now been positively diagnosed with Ebola. Is noting that fact "tinfoil hat conspiracy land"?

Sen. Paul has suggested a moratorium on flights from affected countries, but in KohnWorld this is too politically incorrect to even contemplate. The Obama administration has rejected this, saying it would boomerang and – somehow – make the situation worse. But why is that? No explanation is ever given: we’re just supposed to take it on faith. Yet past government efforts to contain epidemics – notably the AIDS virus – don’t inspire confidence. Indeed, they conjure fear.

It was political correctness that led directly to the rampage of the AIDS virus across America. When San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts called for the gay baths in that city to be closed down early on, he was derided by activists as being a gay "Uncle Tom." Randy, a gay man, died of AIDS in 1994: his book, And the Band Played On, is the definitive treatment of the early fight against the deadly epidemic, which has so far claimed many millions. Over 35 million people are currently infected with the AIDS virus worldwide.

The relationship between AIDS and Ebola is fairly obvious: not only did they both originate in sub-Saharan Africa, but the means of transmission are parallel, although perhaps, not quite identical. AIDS is passed via exchange of bodily fluids, mostly through blood-on-blood contact, which can mean anything from sexual contact in San Francisco’s fast lane to eating the meat of an AIDS infected monkey in a remote African village. And as we learned to our great sorrow, the road from the latter venue to the former wasn’t all that long.

Kohn opens her hit piece with a display of the sort of hubris that is just asking to be shot down in flames:

"Although Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, has now died of the disease, American public health officials remain confident in our nation’s ability to prevent a widespread epidemic. ‘The bottom line here is we know how to stop it,’ CDC director Tom Frieden told NBC News this weekend. ‘It’s not going to spread widely in the U.S., for two basic reasons. We can do infection control in hospitals, and we can do public health interventions that can stop it in its tracks.’"

In a curious reversal, the danger posed by the know-it-all attitude of Frieden and the Obama administration is the opposite of the no-nothingism of the Reagan administration, which refused to even acknowledge AIDS until it was staring them in the face. Yet both administrations initially downplayed the danger posed by the disease in question, assuming public health authorities and our supposedly superior healthcare system could contain any threat of mass infection. While the Reaganites didn’t want to know anything, Frieden’s sheer hubris can be summed up in three words: We know everything.

The problem is we don’t. There is even some question about just how the Ebola virus is transmitted. Largely contained to central Africa, the virus never achieved the ability to reproduce itself outside of a limited perimeter – until now. We are witnessing the first mass outbreak – and, quite possibly, an evolutionary "great leap forward" for the deadly virus.

The virus is not only reproducing itself more rapidly, it is doing so under new conditions, allowing it to adapt to a variety of environments – and quite possibly modify its mode of transmission. The Los Angeles Times reports Dr. C. J. Peters, a pioneer Ebola researcher, saying "[H]e would not rule out the possibility that it spreads through the air in tight quarters."

The Times goes on to cite Dr. Philip J. Russell, another Ebola specialist:

"I see the reasons to dampen down public fears. But scientifically, we’re in the middle of the first experiment of multiple, serial passages of Ebola virus in man…. God knows what this virus is going to look like. I don’t."

Public health officials, questioned more closely than a "reporter" for the Daily Beast is likely to dare, flatly contradict CDC director Frieden’s ebullience. "I’m not going to sit here and say that if a person who is highly viremic … were to sneeze or cough right in the face of somebody who wasn’t protected, that we wouldn’t have a transmission."

Kohn thinks it’s a terrible thing for Sen. Paul to “spread skepticism” about the government’s official line on Ebola, but there’s good reason to be more than merely skeptical. We are told that transmission is only possible when the carrier of the virus is symptomatic. Yet what, exactly, constitutes a symptom? Are you experiencing "fatigue"? Getting a little sweaty under the sheets at night? It’s probably nothing – unless you just got off a plane from Liberia. Or were in contact with someone who recently visited that country. As the Times chillingly put it:

"Moreover, said some public health specialists, there is no proof that a person infected – but who lacks symptoms – could not spread the virus to others."

The government has everything under control: that’s what Obama-bots like Kohn and the rest of the crew at the Daily Beast really believe, and not only when it comes to Ebola. That’s the sustaining faith of New York City’s upper classes, and the eastern seaboard in general – the Ebola virus’s gateway to America. I’ll leave it to my readers to consider the irony and horror of this geographic anomaly.

I have news for these people: your faith is about to be shattered. The government doesn’t have anything under control: they’ve been too busy rescuing Yazidis from Iraqi mountaintops – many of whom, it turns out, didn’t want to be rescued in the first place – to bother putting controls at New York airports. While government agents have been making us take our shoes off, and humiliating travelers in manifold other ways, they haven’t been checking travelers from affected areas until this weekend – and then only at selected East Coast destinations.

Instead of protecting us from the ravages of a deadly disease, know-it-all government officials are taking an enormous risk by sending U.S. troops to Liberia in order to play traffic cop, facilitate the building of hospitals, and police the area in the absence of any real government authority. In taking this path, we may very well be constructing an epidemiological bridge across the Atlantic, a viral highway built with our tax dollars.

That’s "blowback" sui generis.

Kohn cites Ron Paul saying "I think sometimes overreaction can become very dangerous as well," and snarks "Sir, please call your son and tell him that."

Yet there’s no contradiction between father and son. They’re simply addressing different points on the timeline of this unfolding crisis. The overreaction Ron Paul worries about won’t come until after the lax policies of the Obama administration have allowed a real problem to emerge: when, say, the subways around the New York City offices of the Daily Beast become Ebola transmission belts. That’s when Kohn and her fellow Beasties will be calling for draconian measures – and Sen. Paul will be defending our civil liberties while pointing to the missteps that made the crisis possible.

This is yet another example of how our foreign policy of global intervention – and our policy of using the U.S. military for social work – poses a danger to us all: in this case, an actual medical danger. I always considered imperialism a disease, at least metaphorically: and, perhaps, a psychological illness manifesting in its most fervent advocates. I never imagined it would morph into a literal disease-carrier.

The backdrop to this crisis is instructive. Liberia has been a de facto U.S. colony ever since its founding by freed American slaves, sent there as the culmination of a longstanding effort on the part of abolitionist-but-still-racist whites to "solve" the "race problem." The result was the creation of a two-tiered system in Liberia, with the descendants of the freed slaves on top of the sociopolitical order and the natives at the very bottom.

An account of Liberia’s tragic history would take up double the wordage I’ve already expended: if you’re interested, see my 2003 piece on the subject. Suffice to say here that Washington has been instrumental in raising up, succoring, and then being forced to back away from a succession of despots, each more murderous and corrupt than the previous one. When one considers this is the context of the region’s history as the sandbox of European colonialists, it’s fair to say the material conditions for the spread of diseases like Ebola were created in the capitals of the West.

The extractive nature of the mercantilist-imperialist economic system meant that no infrastructure was created that might serve as a shield against communicable diseases. The West extracted human beings as well, provoking mass migrations away from colonized areas – and spreading viruses that might have been limited to remote areas far and wide. An examination of the epidemiological consequences of imperialism is a study that, as far as I know, has yet to be undertaken. Now there’s a research project for some enterprising academic.

What I greatly fear, however, is that the bulk of the research for such a study is contained in current – and future – news stories.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].