Call a doctor, preferably, one who’s employed by a government agency that was created to respond to mass casualty pandemic illness. Do it while you still can.
There was a major uproar in December when the Washington Post reported that that the Trump administration had ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) not to use “seven dirty words”—“vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
But a week later, Slate revealed the supposedly banned words were in fact selected by CDC career employees, not political appointees, in an effort to protect funding for their research.
Think about that. And think about how it’s consistent with the Trump administration’s tendency to curb the influence of experts and deny epistemic knowledge. Of far greater concern than the threat of terrorism is the inevitability of another virus that could make AIDS look like conjunctivitis.
To advance his immigration agenda, President Trump claimed all Haitians have AIDS, according to the New York Times, a remark the White House disputes, of course. But it tracks with his familiar racism and insensitivity. It also displays a shocking lack of understanding about public health and disease.
In “AIDS and its Metaphors,” Susan Sontag cautioned against “many of the enduring Eurocentric presumptions about others, starting from the fantasy that peoples with little reason to expect exemption from misfortune have a lessened capacity to feel misfortune.”
Writing before epidemiologists knew for certain where AIDS began, Sontag explained: “The fact that illness is associated with the poor…reinforces the association of illness with the foreign: with an exotic, often primitive place. Illustrating the classic script for plague, AIDS is thought to have started in the ‘dark continent,’ then spread to Haiti, then to the United States and to Europe.
Africans who detect racist stereotypes in much of the speculation about the geographical origin of AIDS are not wrong.”
A virus doesn’t discriminate against potential hosts and in an interconnected world with some 44,000 airports, the question is not whether a contagious disease will spread across oceans but rather when and how quickly. All affected communities, regardless of their relative wealth, will suffer terribly from the next pandemic.
I choose the word “next” deliberately. Americans in this moment are dealing with a flu outbreak poised to be as destructive as in the 2014-2015 season, the worst in recent years. And the Ebola virus, whose origins also trace back to the African continent, remains a potent threat.
And herein lies the concern with Trump.
In 2014, a Liberian national unwittingly brought Ebola to the United States and under the wise counsel of public health officials, the Obama administration decided against administering travel bans. They would not have effectively prevented all people infected with the disease from entering the country and only would have worsened the situation by cutting off the supply of international aid workers to affected countries that, generally, have limited resources and a limited ability to contain the outbreak.
When American health workers were dispatched to Liberia that year and returned stateside for treatment after they contracted Ebola, Trump tweeted: “Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days – now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!”
The president has a clear affinity for travel bans. And there’s every reason to expect that if an outbreak develops under his administration, Trump will pursue this against the advice of doctors and researchers and healthcare workers who have already explained why it’s a terrible idea.
This would unfold amid a fraught political climate. The CDC, the agency tasked with containing pandemics, has felt such a chilling effect from the top that employees were compelled to edit out seven words with which, they assumed, the Trump administration is likely to take issue. Among these, “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
Meanwhile, the CDC has 700 vacancies, including “several positions in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which regulates some of the world’s most dangerous bacteria and viruses and manages the nation’s stockpile of emergency medical countermeasures,” according to the Washington Post.
Read Richard Preston’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone” to see how close we came to a catastrophically deadly Ebola pandemic. It chronicles how brave government workers contained an outbreak of Ebola Reston, so named for the Washington, D.C. suburb in which it was discovered. It could have been as virulent as Ebola Zaire, a nearly identical virus that killed 90 percent of patients affected in a 2003 outbreak. It could also have happened under a government that disenfranchised those researchers, scientists, and doctors who are our only hope.
Preston was told by an expert that Ebola is “interesting”—in the sense that one can call “interesting” the prospect of being confronted by a cobra that’s agitated and poised to strike.
Amid new revelations that have intensified doubts about the president’s fitness for office, it’s time to assess our nation’s preparedness for an outbreak of pandemic illness. It’s time to revisit the lessons learned from AIDS, as well as close calls with Ebola and Influenza.
It’s time to let doctors and researchers do their job of protecting us and the nation without fear of political retaliation.