Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina'

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 19 October 2014 14:13 BST
A protester outside the White House last Friday demands a travel ban from Africa
A protester outside the White House last Friday demands a travel ban from Africa

Contrary to what you might imagine, Ebola the physical disease has thus far barely made an appearance in the US. But two mutant strains of the sickness, Ebola, the panic virus and Ebola, the political virus, are rife. The consequences for November's midterm elections now barely a fortnight off, and for Barack Obama's place in history, could be momentous.

It's hard not to feel sorry for Obama right now. No president is perfect, but for this one, misfortunes not of his making are arriving – like London buses – in convoys. There's Islamic radicalism and Islamic State which have drawn him into a new Middle East conflict that his foreign policy objective was to avoid at all costs.

Then the economy finally starts yielding decent figures – on growth, unemployment and the national finances – yet last week's news that the budget deficit had fallen to its lowest since 2007, a meagre 2.8 per cent of GDP (a figure most European governments would kill for) was obliterated by the tumble in US and global stock markets. And now Ebola.

Yes, mistakes in handling the threatened pandemic have been made – by all parties. The World Health Organisation was guilty of initially underestimating the danger. Western governments were (and still are) slothful in providing real help on the ground in West Africa. Here in the US, the federal government and the Atlanta-based Centre for Disease Control, similarly dropped the ball. "We're stopping it in its tracks in this country," Thomas Frieden, CDC's chief, assured us only three weeks ago.

For its part, the Dallas hospital, which treated the only person who has so far died from the disease on US soil, made egregious mistakes as well. First, the patient's condition was misdiagnosed; then two nurses who tended him were found to have the disease, despite the strictest theoretical precautions. Unbelievably, the second of them, already showing early signs of fever, was permitted by the CDC to take a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas last week, along with 132 passengers who are now being frantically sought by the authorities.

It could be that for all the criticism he now faces, Dr Frieden will be proved right. Despite the saturation coverage, just one person (a Liberian visiting relatives in America) has died, and only two people (the nurses) have thus far been infected. As Frieden has warned, there will surely be others. But if anybody has the capacity to stop Ebola in its tracks, it is the US, boasting the most advanced medical technology on earth.

And even as a potential health scourge, the disease hardly rates. Every year alcohol kills some 88,000 Americans and tobacco close on half a million. Some 30,000 people are killed, or kill themselves, with firearms annually, and thousands more die from the common flu. But that is to reckon without the panic factor, born of fear of the unknown – be it IS, possible economic collapse, and now Ebola.

Glance at the headlines and you'd think Dallas is a city about to fall to the silent enemy within. Worst-case scenarios abound, The New York Times quotes academic experts on "public hysteria", and a New York company reports soaring sales of gasmasks and other "survival systems". On Doom and Bloom, an online store, you can buy a "Deluxe Ebola Pandemic Kit" complete with goggles, coveralls, masks, and biohazard bags for $59.99 (£37), according to the Daily Beast news website.

In an election season, where there's potential panic, there's politics. Anxious to be seen as "in control", the President last week cancelled political trips outside Washington, to attend to the crisis with his top advisers. On Friday, he appointed an "Ebola tsar" to co-ordinate the federal government's response, and signed orders for national guardsmen to go to West Africa to help fight the epidemic.

But this "drop-everything else" tactic by the President, whose approval rating has sunk to a George W Bush-like 40 per cent – may backfire, creating the very panic it seeks to avoid. And even if the Ebola menace is extinguished in the US, Obama probably won't get any credit. If it isn't, he'll certainly get the blame.

Indeed, Ebola is already being portrayed by the President's Republican foes as a "Obama's Katrina", a failure to react to a disaster as fatal to his reputation as was Bush's incompetence in handling the hurricane that devastated New Orleans. That is nonsense, as is the counter-charge from the Democrats that the crisis stems from CDC funding cuts (to which the Democrats agreed during the recent budget showdowns in Washington).

On 4 November, Ebola may not sway votes directly. But indirectly, it surely works to the Republicans advantage, feeding into a pervasive sense of national unease, reinforcing a perception of drift and weakness.

If so, then we could be heading for a Democratic disaster that would weaken Obama further. The party long since gave up all hope of making gains in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are set to enlarge their majority. The sole question of these midterms, a de facto referendum on the man who is not on the ballot, is whether the Democrats can cling on to the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to have a majority, and a fortnight ago it seemed they might come up short. Now the tide is running in their favour. Three GOP gains are all but certain: West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. Add Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado, where the Republican is leading, and it's seven.

True, a couple of Republican-held seats in Kansas and Georgia look wobbly, and the Democrats may cling on to Louisiana, another Republican target. But consider this. Ebola's incubation period is around 21 days. If so, and new cases do come to light, it could be right around the election day itself. Cui bono? Surely the Republicans.

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