I’m embarrassed to admit that this summer I watched a new cable TV series called The Last Ship. When I stumbled on a TNT trailer of the new series featuring the use of a Navy ship and authentic shipboard scenes, I decided to watch the first episode. It was pretty lame drama, but I was hooked.
The premise of the series is that a deadly virus has spread around the world, decimating the population, and a doctor on board an uninfected U.S. naval vessel is the only hope of developing a vaccine to save the world.
The mission is simple: Find a cure. Stop the virus. Save the world. The crew of 217 men and women of the lone unaffected U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Nathan James (DDG-151), must find a way to pull humanity from the brink of extinction.
The reality of the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, which has spread to the U.S. and elsewhere, is a forceful reminder that the TV series is only fiction. This current epidemic is a very real danger that can’t be solved before the next commercial break.
The deadly virus on TV is one that can be forgotten when the show is over and the credits run. The TV series kills only fictional people who normally don’t even appear on screen. However, the current Ebola outbreak has already killed several thousand people who are real—even though most are far away and only appear as horrifying images on the evening news.
When the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa first started it was so easy to assume that the disease wouldn’t come to the U.S. and affect us. That was a sad mistake. The epidemic was only an international plane ride away.
In 1918 a world-wide flu pandemic brought on by WWI troop movements killed more than half a million Americans, and possibly as many as 100 million individuals around the globe. In India alone, 17 million (5 percent of the population) died. Of course, the world is much smaller today and the convenience of international travel means that African or Asian diseases are more likely to appear on our doorsteps in no time.
At the end of the current series of episodes, the doctor on The Last Ship dramatically announces that she has developed the miracle vaccine to control the disease. That’s the way we expect it to happen in TV dramas. We expect the happy ending.
Real diseases often don’t work that way. Medical researchers have been trying to find a cure for Ebola since it first appeared in 1976 and killed 90 percent of the people it infected. Fortunately, earlier outbreaks were controlled and died out—hopefully, this one will too. But, not without a concerted international campaign to control and cure the dread disease. With the latest outbreak in West Africa, the CDC and NIH instead of urging extreme caution issued almost cavalier statements. What’s more, as a medical school professor informed me, both CDC and NIH should have been much more pro-active with regard to the cases here. Instead of simply issuing protocols and bulletins, they should have implemented immediate, comprehensive training of medical personnel (doctors, nurses and other staff) at the hospitals in question to ensure that those protocols were being strictly enforced. The failure to act has resulted in the spread beyond the original patients, something that simply can’t be tolerated.
Unfortunately, like the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration’s response to the epidemic to date has been totally mismanaged. The CDC and other federal agencies charged with protecting us from infectious diseases have bungled badly. The recent appointment of an “Ebola Czar” to handle the crisis is a politically calculated Band-Aid designed to finesse the growing crisis and quiet critics. The move is intended to give the false impression that everything is under control. It’s not.
A crisis on the eve of an election is seriously problematic. Some are paralyzed into inaction for fear of the impact on pre-election polls. Others, attempting to capitalize on the peril, propose dramatic, totally unrealistic and infeasible plans in a desperate attempt to sway voters their way. Either way national security is seriously compromised.
The politicizing of a crisis such as this is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and develop sensible, non-partisan strategies to deal with this crisis and let the election chips fall where they may. The Ebola crisis is much too serious for political gamesmanship.