3000 U.S. troops headed for Africa to fight Ebola

I’m old enough to remember when worrying about the ebola outbreak was said to be the business of paranoid hysterics.  It’s not that bad of an outbreak, ebola’s not terribly contagious, it’ll never come to the United States, and if it does we’re totally ready to kick its microscopic ass with containment teams ready to swoop in as soon as highly-trained TSA agents notice air passengers with any of the symptoms.  It’s not even worth talking about.  Just ignore ebola and it will go away.

That was then, and this is now.  The Washington Post reports that President Obama has suddenly authorized a far larger military intervention to combat ebola in Africa than his “boots on the ground” commitment to battle the ISIS terror state:

Under pressure to do more to confront the Ebola outbreak sweeping across West Africa, President Obama on Tuesday is to announce an expansion of military and medical resources to combat the spread of the deadly virus, administration officials said.

The president will go beyond the 25-bed portable hospital that Pentagon officials said they would establish in Liberia, one of the three West African countries ravaged by the disease, officials said. Mr. Obama will offer help to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia in the construction of as many as 17 Ebola treatment centers in the region, with about 1,700 treatment beds.

Senior administration officials said Monday night that the Department of Defense would open a joint command operation in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate the international effort to combat the disease. The military will also provide engineers to help construct the additional treatment facilities and will send enough people to train up to 500 health care workers a week to deal with the crisis.

Officials said the military expected to send as many as 3,000 people to Africa to take charge of responding to the Ebola outbreak.

???We all recognize that this is such an extraordinary, serious epidemic,??? a senior official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of Mr. Obama???s public remarks on Tuesday. The efforts should turn the tide from a high-transmission epidemic that continues to grow every day, other officials said.

We all recognize that, huh?  We sure didn’t all recognize it last month, when we were given confident assurances that everything was totally under control.

The White House plan would increase the number of doctors and other health care workers being sent to West Africa from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other American agencies, officials said.

The American government will also provide 400,000 Ebola home health and treatment kits to Liberia, as well as tens of thousands of kits intended to test whether people have the disease. The Pentagon will provide some logistical equipment for health workers going to West Africa and what administration officials described as ???command and control??? organizational assistance on how to coordinate the overall relief work. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to be part of the Defense Department effort.

Administration officials did not say how soon the 17 treatment centers would be built in Liberia; officials there, as well as international aid officials, have said that 1,000 beds are needed in Liberia in the next week alone to contain a disease that has been spreading exponentially.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Washington Post that the current focus on Liberia is “too limited.”  Instead, “we should see all of West Africa now as one big outbreak.”  That’s one hell of an outbreak.

When the ebola story first broke, and I heard some experienced doctors warning that it was unlike any strain they had seen before, I thought the nightmare scenario would be a further mutation that made it more contagious.  It spreads through bodily fluids now – evidently spreading more readily through incidental contact than ever before – but if it becomes airborne, we’ll be playing a whole new game.  Osterholm published a bombshell article in the New York Times last week that said concerns about such mutation are entirely valid.  The more commonly-discussed scenario about ebola spreading throughout the world involves sick people from Africa’s overcrowded slums bringing it aboard airplanes.  The worst of all nightmare scenarios is something Osterholm says doctors don’t like to talk about, something presently confined to the pages of pandemic thriller novels:

The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air. You can now get Ebola only through direct contact with bodily fluids. But viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next. The current Ebola virus???s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.

If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.

Why are public officials afraid to discuss this? They don???t want to be accused of screaming ???Fire!??? in a crowded theater ??? as I???m sure some will accuse me of doing. But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic.

It sounds like the Administration is taking Osterholm and like-minded researchers seriously, with an abrupt and massive effort to keep the outbreak from spreading further across Africa and getting a few thousand more throws of those genetic dice.  Among Osterholm’s recommendations in his New York Times article was better organization, more command-and-control for bringing resources to Africa and distributing them to needed areas.   He thought it was a job for the U.N. Security Council, which is logical on paper but touchingly naive in practice.  No, it’s got to be the U.S. military to the rescue.  The effort announced by the Administration today is stunning because it seemingly came out of nowhere, but the hard truth is that it might be too little, too late.

In fact, “Too Little, Too Late?’ is the headline question asked at The Hill, which notes that the White House “is facing sharp criticism over its previous actions in the outbreak, which aid workers have lamented as insufficient half-measures given rapidly deteriorating conditions on the ground.”  It sounds like another example of the semi-retired President getting dragged into a situation he’d rather not deal with, because the media coverage is getting too ugly to ignore:

So far, the Obama administration has committed roughly $175 million for multiple agencies specifically to fight Ebola. The CDC has deployed about 100 healthcare workers to the region, USAID has its own teams on the ground, and the Pentagon is working to establish a 25-bed temporary hospital in Liberia to treat ill healthcare workers.

Aid workers saw these actions as token gestures, however, given the need for literally thousands of hospital beds and healthcare workers on the ground.

The 25-bed temporary hospital is a particular sore spot given its small size and the fact that it could take more than one month to arrive in West Africa.

Administration officials say it will also be weeks before U.S. military personnel are fully deployed to the region, although the Pentagon hopes to have a general officer overseeing the coordinated effort in place by the end of this week.

Even now, some experts warn that it may be too little too late.

???The mobilization that is happening is coming late, and it’s coming while exponential growth of the virus itself is just outstripping everyone,??? said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

???The collapse of security and flight access, the closure of borders, the regression of the economy, the fear of the people ??? all of those things create this absolutely formidable environment.???

???I’m very distressed,??? said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. ???I don’t think we’re even close to playing catch up, much less mount a response that will get us ahead of the virus.???

The UK Daily Mail reports that another complaint about that 25-bed hospital is that it’s actually designed to treat sick health care workers, not the primary victims of the outbreak.

Was it really so difficult to see that American military coordination was needed, along with more supplies and doctors?  Has the White House been laboring under some fantasy that the governments of the region were capable of handling the problem with a bit of international assistance?  (At ground zero of the outbreak in Libera, impoverished people live in appalling conditions while government officials take turns accusing each other of looting the public treasury.)  In the Hill article, Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations dismisses that notion as “the height of folly,” asking point-blank, “Even if we do airlift massive supplies, who in the hell is going to make sure that things don’t end up on the black market?  Who is going to make sure they’re divided equally, and not based on politics?”

The Daily Mail notes the danger of American troops getting drawn into local conflicts, not to mention the danger they will contract ebola – something that has been happening to trained medical personnel with disturbing frequency:

Some of what America’s armed personnel will do in Liberia is unclear. The White House said ‘many’ of them will be stationed at an ‘intermediate staging base’ where they will supervise the movement of medical staff, supplies and heavy equipment.

AFRICOM already warns its own personnel that they should ‘avoid nonessential travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.’

And the Defense Department is concerned, one Pentagon official told MailOnline, about the public perceptions aroused when American G.I.s patrol ground zero in a disease outbreak that could plunge three or more countries into chaos if it worsens significantly.

Combat soldiers and Marines ‘will be on hand and ready for anything,’ said the official, who has knowledge of some, but not all, of the Ebola-related planning. ‘But hopefully it will be all logistics and hospital-building.’

‘The president has ordered us to help, and we’re eager to do it,’ he said. ‘Now it looks like we’re going to be the lead dog, and that’s bound to make a lot of people nervous. It’s understandable.’

‘But no one wants U.S. personnel enforcing someone else’s martial law if things go south and the entire region is at risk.’

West African nations are already complaining that travel restrictions imposed to block the spread of ebola by air passengers are crippling their economies, which among other things makes it even harder for them to combat ebola outbreaks within their borders.  Another concern is that people in the affected areas have become afraid to visit the hospital, because they might contract ebola… which is making various other health problems worse.  It’s a major, multi-faceted crisis.

As for the American view of the problem, obviously ebola has an enormous psychological footprint.  It’s a hideous disease, and it’s an alien disease – something we have no experience with, and which has never caused problems inside our borders before.  If ebola gets here, even if it causes only a relative handful of cases, the public response would be intense.  Also, in this era of government incompetence, cover-ups, and endless lies, the American people have good reason to distrust the official response to an ebola outbreak.  To put it bluntly, we have good reason to think we won’t be told the truth about whatever might occur.  As we’re learning from this sudden surge of action in Africa, this Administration hasn’t properly judged the threat so far, and its actions still tend to be driven by its media coverage.

Let us hope, for the sake of both potential domestic victims and the people already suffering in Africa, that the War on Ebola is fought better than this Administrations bumbling, fumbling, stumbling response to ISIS.  I don’t want to hear Barack Obama’s thoughts on what he would tell ebola to do if he were advising it, stern lectures about how it’s not a true haemorrhagic fever no matter what it calls itself, taunts about how it has no place in the 21st Century, public arguments between Administration officials about whether we’re at war with ebola or not, or vague mumbling about how we’re going to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it.