WASHINGTON — The failure to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa could feed instability and prompt governments to fall, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations told BuzzFeed News.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass said the U.S. should keep focused on the region, even while attention continues to grow on the disease's limited exposure in the West.
"I don't have any fear at all that Ebola will become a crisis in the United States," Bass told BuzzFeed News late Thursday. "It is a crisis in West Africa and that is where our concern needs to be."
She said media coverage that emphasizes the threat Ebola poses to the United States is misleading. "It's as though it's an epidemic that has taken root in United States." She added that while she feels empathy for those who in the U.S. who are infected — including the first person to die of the virus in the U.S., Thomas Eric Duncan — that the real problem is in West Africa.
As of Friday, the World Health Organization estimates that at least 4,033 have died from the pandemic — a number that is said to be rising rapidly.
Bass said that many Americans don't appreciate that, should conditions worsen in West Africa, it could have political implications that reach beyond its borders. "If the countries [ravaged by Ebola] become destabilized and the governments fall ... if that happens it opens the door to extremism."
That, Bass said, should be a major cause for concern. "Because [Ebola's] not going to come here. I'm sure there's going to be more cases here, but we a have health care system that can handle it.
"A handful cases is not a national tragedy."
Two major humanitarian organizations — Doctors Without Borders and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — stopped short of stating that the real crisis remains in Western Africa, and instead reiterated the need for government involvement there.
"The needs are far greater than what MSF is able to manage," a Doctors Without Borders spokesman said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "This is why we have been calling loudly for governments with the necessary personnel and resources to deploy them to the affected countries to care for patients and control the outbreak."
A spokesman from USAID said the U.S. government has staged a "whole-of-government response" to fight and contain Ebola in Africa, at the same time enacting prudent measures to protect American citizens.
"It is clear that the United States is actively engaged in West Africa with more than 250 civilian medical, healthcare, and disaster response experts from multiple federal agencies, as well as 350 U.S. military personnel already there and many more on the way," a spokesman said. "This constitutes the largest U.S. response to an international public health crisis in our history."
These concerns extend especially to those who work with African and U.S. interests.
The Obama administration and the American public should be more broadly concerned with what is happening in Africa, and treat Ebola as a true humanitarian crisis, said Stephen Hayes, president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
"We should be more committed," said Hayes, whose group hosted a three-day conference on African urban development this week in Washington. He added that he fears neglect for the issues affecting the continent now are more clear, given the spread of Ebola.
"I think that was a huge mistake on our part politically, economically and now health-wise. I think they've been very, very slow. We're doing more than most countries," he said. "But is it enough?"
This week, the Centers for Disease Control announced it would enhance screening procedures at major airports with a large influx of passengers coming to the U.S from Western Africa. On Wednesday, the CDC announced added measures for Ebola screening at five U.S. airports — JFK, Dulles International, Atlanta Hartsfield, Newark International and Chicago O'Hare. The procedures are expected to go into effect this weekend.
Despite the precautions, the president reiterated this week that it is unlikely that an Ebola pandemic will reach the United States.
"Right now, a lot of people's attention is focused on our efforts to prevent an Ebola outbreak in the United States," President Obama said in a conference call Wednesday afternoon with local and state elected officials. "And I want everybody to know that from day one, this administration has made fighting Ebola a national security priority. We don't think this is just a humanitarian issue or a public health issue, this is a national security priority. And we are working aggressively to stop the epidemic in West Africa, to stop any cases in their tracks here at home."
Chime Asonye, a commissioner on the Washington, D.C., Commission of African Affairs, a group working on an Ebola awareness initiative, says issues like overcrowding, lack of access to nutrition, lack of proper sanitation, poverty, war, industrial land grabs, contaminated water means the focus should, from a moral standpoint, stay with what's happening abroad and global health inequality. "There are more large scale issues at work. I think that in general there's a lack of empathy and connection to Africa, the 'external other' that we don't necessarily care about."
Asonye said individual acts of heroism aren't being told as widely in the media as they should be, nor has the plight of healthcare workers who care for Ebola patients without the protective measures to save their own lives. Juxtaposed against examples like a segment on CNN which questioned if Ebola was the "ISIS of biological agents," Asonye argued it reveals the lack of humanity in American discourse concerning the pandemic. "That's the level of the rhetoric. It shows that we don't value African lives as much as we do Western lives."
Since the virus first began spreading in West Africa earlier this year, it has ravaged extremely underdeveloped areas lacking adequate medical infrastructure.
"The virus will find its way here one way or another — physically via someone like Mr. Duncan or a journalist, or economically," said Chid Liberty, a businessman with expanding interests in Liberia. "Militarily, of course, as governments weakened by this crisis are far too stretched to also combat Islamic extremism or other rebel movements. The truth is, Ebola anywhere is Ebola everywhere."
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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