5 Things to Worry About Before Giving in to Ebola Panic

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Sure, Ebola — a 35-year-old disease that originated in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is really a minor problem for the United States. The virus is not that easily transmittable; it is not an airborne disease, and in fact, it is far less contagious than the flu or measles. And while scientists estimate that one patient infected with measles can spread the disease to as many as 18 other people, Ebola typically transmits to just two and does not become contagious until symptoms manifest. Despite those characteristics, an epidemic exits in West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where nearly 4,900 people have died since December. But, in the United States, both the Center’s for Disease Control (and every other leading contagious disease expert) has said a major outbreak is highly unlikely because hospitals have the resources to handle a disease like Ebola and the CDC’s Office of Infectious Disease is, at least theoretically, prepared to halt its spread.

But yet Ebola is a virus — with no known vaccine or specific treatment — that kills anywhere between half and 90% of its victims by causing hemorrhaging and multiple organ failure. And while the public as a group may think Ebola is more horrific and more easily transmittable than it really is, that can be seen as a survival behavior. As Massachusetts-based risk perception consultant David Ropeik told NBC, that behavior is “not irrational” but “instinctive.” Also, “dying from Ebola does suck,” Ropeik said. “It’s not a good way to go. That makes it scarier.” The scariness factor of the disease has been magnified by the October 8 death of the Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas — who was not only the first verified case of Ebola in the Western Hemisphere but the patient who spread the virus to two health care workers.

Some in the political world — including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — say the world is growing ever more dangerous, and they cite nuclear proliferation, revolutions in the Middle East, Europe’s economic crisis, and the rise of new powers like China and India as evidence of that assertion. In February 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced: “I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” But the Council on Foreign Affairs argues politicians throw around that claim for simple political reasons. “The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place,” wrote the group in a 2012 article. “It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history.”

Yet, the passing two years — with the rise of the Islamic terrorist group ISIL, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, Iran’s ongoing pursuit of nuclear capabilities, drug violence in Mexico, and a great number of crises — have only given more weight to the claims of politicians like Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who stated in July that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” But many leading political scientists still maintain that the world is no more dangerous now than it was a decade ago. The reason much of the political world and the American public sees  a different reality is because they lack perspective. “There is little [media] focus on the threats that no longer threaten,” Christopher A. Preble, vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, wrote in recent report. “Few talk about the dangers no longer looming. It is rare, even, to find people putting today’s threats in context with the recent past. Or the distant past.”

At least most can agree that Ebola is not the biggest threat to America. But if not Ebola, what is?

Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

Source: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images


For now, the threat posed by this radical Islamic terrorist group to Americans outside Iraq and Syria is very low. But like Eboa, the ISIL threat has been inflated. And that is only natural; ISIL is a terrorist organization that barbarically kills its American prisoners, has vowed to exact retribution on the United States for its military bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, and promised to “God willing … raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” Obama administration officials have added to the public’s belief that the group represents an existential threat to the United States. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk said ISIL “is worse than al Qaeda,” and even deputy secretary of defense warned that the organization’s leaders have proclaimed, “We’re coming for you, Barack Obama.”

But while the threats made by ISIL have been bombastic, the group has not demonstrated an intent or the capabilities to launch a terrorist attack on American soil. “We don’t have any information about credible planning for an attack” by ISIL, according to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. And that assessment that has been corroborated by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The group does control wide swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, where the fighting over the key border city Kobane remains intense; it has attracted thousands of fighters, some with Western passports; and the territory it has taken over includes several caches of aging but still-deadly chemical weapons, which theoretically could be used in an attack on the United States. A terrorist attack may be a remote possibility; but Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator during President Barack Obama’s first term, told The New York Times that the the public discussion about the ISIL threat is a “farce.” And it is generally believed that U.S. intelligence is better prepared to handle a terrorist attack than it was in 2001. “We are organized as an intelligence community. We’re better organized and equipped at the border,” FBI director James Comey told CBS’s 60 Minutes. “We have relationships with our foreign partners. All of which makes us better able to see dots and connect dots. The transformation since 9/11 is striking.”

And it is also worth noting that ISIL is not quite the terrorist organization in the mold of al Qaeda. As a recent article in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism explained, ISIL has other goals, most notably expanding and administering its own territory. The violence ISIL fighters commit is generally part of the group’s conflict with rival national militaries and militias.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Source: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

A real infectious disease epidemic

Take the common flu, for example. Between 5% and 20% of the U.S. population catch influenza, or the flu, every year. Of those cases, more than 200,000 people require hospitalization, and more than 20,000 die each year, most of whom are the elderly or the very young. At its worst, the flu’s death toll is more than twice that figure. In 2004, more than 48,000 Americans caught a deadly case of the flu. By comparison, car accidents kill 30,000 Americans annually, while another 30,000 will die of gun-shot wounds, of which approximately two-thirds are suicides. And Ebola is far less infectious than the flu.

It cannot be forgotten that the United States’ hospital preparedness program has been cut from a 2003 peak of $500 million to $250 million in 2014, which has led to insufficient training, technology, and equipment. And that reality, and the fact that Ebola has cropped up in the United States on multiple fronts and spread to a small degree has somewhat undermined the official government line that Ebola poses no threat. Ebola therefore presents both an opportunity and a challenge to Washington lawmakers. For those that want to expose and remedy what they see as an ineffective response by an administration that has too often been administratively ineffective and slow to respond to major crises at home and abroad, Ebola services as a case study. The challenge is for lawmakers — who often become sidetracked by partisan battles — actually find a strategy to stop its spread. More importantly, this outbreak of Ebola presents an opportunity for lawmakers to gauge how prepared the United States government is for a larger and more serious infectious disease epidemic.

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War in Eastern Europe

Again, the odds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meddles in Estonia, a NATO country, as he did in Ukraine are low, and therefore, it is extremely unlikely that any military conflict will break out between the world’s major nuclear powers. But because Estonia is a NATO country, unlike Ukraine, Russian aggression would require the United States and Western Europe to come the country’s defense. Putin has not made public any designs on Estonia — a former Soviet republic of 1.3 million — specifically. But a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, Anatoly Makarov, told Russian news outlet RuBaltic that Moscow has a duty to protect ethnic Russians “regardless of where they live,” according to a translation provided by Eurasian specialist Paul Goble. “We will do everything possible to defend the rights and interests” of what Makarov said were “more than 1.3 million Russians” living in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.” When Russia annexed Crimea in March and invaded eastern Ukraine in August, Putin framed the use of force as a necessity to protect ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the country.

And Russia held major nuclear exercises last month.

Russia violated Estonian airspace last week and seized Estonian intelligence official Eston Kohver, who is being held in Moscow, on September 5. That move was not taken as an act of war, but it was seen as a sign that Putin’s government was willing to push around the Baltic states, all of which are NATO countries. Of course, foreign policy experts posit that Putin may be only seeing how far he can go in the Baltic States. Obama has responded to Putin’s posturing, giving a speech in the Estonian capital of Tallinn just 48 hours before Kohver was captured. “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania,” said Obama, making a public pledge to defend any Nato country. “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Climate change

The idea that environmental concerns and national security interests are tied up together is not a new one, but it has been given particular emphasis following a new report from the Department of Defense: “The 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.” The report states quite plainly that climate change “poses immediate risks to the U.S. national security,” not simply risks in some theoretical future. And the a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific intergovernmental body set up under the auspices of the United Nations, paints a grim future; if the global temperature rises just 4 degrees Celsius, the world will see “substantial species extinctions,” large “risks to global and regional food security,” and rising sea levels. While the global community has attempted to limit the temperature increase to only 2 degrees Celsius, avoiding environmental crises requires significant cuts to carbon emissions, and the United States and China have been slow to change standards.

“[G]iven that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts,” a World Bank report said, “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”

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