Ebola Didn't Disappear, They Just Stopped Talking About It

As the President provided an update on Ebola from the National Institutes of Health the other day, few noticed because the media barely reported on it. While at the same time, a meme floated around social media wondering what happened to the Ebola threat in the first place. It's telling on two fronts, the lack of appreciation of the US Ebola response, and the amazing way we pretend that Ebola isn't an issue even though it's still a major problem.

On the US side, the pre-election 24/7 media circus over Ebola was only a couple months ago. And it's easy to imagine that if a lot of Americans would have died from the disease, the media freak-out would continue non-stop to this day.

But on the other hand, when you successfully protect everybody and lose exactly zero Americans on American soil to Ebola, the media is response is a giant yawn. 

  • There was an enormous clamor for Obama to choose an Ebola czar, he did, and Ron Klain has been on the job ever since.
  • In just a few months, the number of facilities prepared to treat Ebola patients in the US has increased from three to 35.
  • The number of domestic labs capable of testing for Ebola has increased from 13 to 42.
  • There are now 3,000 brave American civilian and military personnel on the ground in West Africa, up from several hundred a few months ago. 
  • And three Americans tested positive for Ebola on US soil, all received care, all recovered.

On the global side, even though America has shamefully stopped paying attention, Ebola is still a major issue in West Africa, especially in Sierra Leone. And it's a problem that has to be handled aggressively, as the President explains:

"As long as this disease continues to rage in West Africa, we could continue to see isolated cases here in America. In West Africa, this remains the worst Ebola epidemic in history by a long shot. ...
Every hot-spot is an ember that, if not contained, could become a new fire. So we cannot let down our guard, even for a minute. And we can’t just fight this epidemic; we have to extinguish it.

Now the President has asked Congress to approve emergency requests for funding necessary to provide resources for our domestic facilities, take the next steps on Ebola vaccines, fund our West African response, and strengthen global health security. And even though many in Congress spent much of August and September on television talking about Ebola... it's unclear if they will approve the funds necessary to finish the job.

Society in general just has a terrible time properly understanding threats and appreciating successful response to threats.

In "Modern Day Cassandras" a piece from March 2013, I highlighted a former co-worker whose father worked on the Y2K computer issue. I wrote, "It's endlessly frustrating to my friend's father that history remembers Y2K as 'that thing people warned us about, but they were wrong about its consequences' - but he would argue that the worst predictions didn't happen precisely because investments were made and we got in front of those issues before they became big problems."

We sadly live in a society where there are no gold stars, trophies, or medals awarded for preventing wars and disasters from happening in the first place.

Economist Noah Smith, writing on Peak Oil in 2013, decided to highlight one of the post's comments by Robert Frey. Frey writes:

"Arguing that a peak oil prediction was foolish or inaccurate because it was not realized is a bit like arguing that an inoculation program was unnecessary because the epidemic never occurred. The geologists who made such predictions were not fools. Their models were well thought out and carefully validated. They understood the conditions and limitations of their prognostications and saw themselves not as doomsayers but as agents of change. We owe them gratitude and not disdain."

Smith himself added: "YES. Exactly. If physicists predict that an asteroid is going to hit Earth, and so in response we send a bomb and successfully divert the asteroid, you hail the physicists as heroes, rather than deriding them as Chicken Littles. This is something that too many economists and finance commentators tend to get wrong when talking about predictions."

Frankly, it's something that society as a whole gets wrong far too often.

"It's not just Ebola that's killing people in the country. It's the poverty. It's the feeling of being left alone. It's the feeling of hopelessness," says Ishmeal Alfred Charles, a charity worker from Freetown, Sierra Leone.