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The missing face in Obama’s Ebola fight

Emergency personnel wearing protective clothing prepare to enter a residential apartment after a second health care worker tested positive for the Ebola virus in Dallas October 16, 2014. The latest Texas health worker infected with Ebola is Amber Vinson, a 29-year-old nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, one of her relatives said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jaime R. Carrero (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH)   | Photo Credit: JAIME R. CARRERO

Three tense weeks since the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the U.S., President Barack Obama named Ron Klain, a former Chief of Staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore and a familiar face to White House insiders, as his new Ebola ‘czar’ on October 17.

Although White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said that Mr. Klain was selected for his management experience and contacts throughout the government, Congressional Republicans wasted little time in slamming the President’s pick for the top role in what is becoming an increasingly fierce fight against a formidable microscopic adversary.

Conservative criticism that was most poignantly laced with irony came from Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold who tweeted on Friday, “President Barack Obama selects Ron Klain (lawyer, former Biden & Gore) as Ebola czar. God forbid he select a doctor.”

The irony of his tweet stems from the fact that it is Conservatives who have effectively blocked the man who may have been poised to attain Ebola czar-ship — Mr. Obama’s Indian-American nominee for the role of Surgeon-General, Vivek Murthy.

Fear pandemic

Outside of West Africa, confirmed Ebola cases have emerged only in two nations so far — Spain and the U.S. Each day in this country new, chilling stories are emerging of hospital workers who treated the first U.S.-diagnosed patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, contracting the disease and then in two out of three such high-risk cases, blithely exposing themselves to the wider public.

The first casualty was nurse Nina Pham (26), who has subsequently been moved to the high-tech federal medical facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Similarly, another nurse, Amber Vinson (29) tested positive for Ebola but not before she had travelled on a commercial airliner between Cleveland and Dallas with 132 unsuspecting passengers.

The final straw came when a lab supervisor who may have worked on Mr. Duncan’s fluids boarded a cruise liner with her partner and went into voluntary isolation there after news broke of the potential risk she posed. The ship was refused landing rights in Mexico and Belize, ultimately returning to Galveston, Texas, even though as it returned it was evident that the supervisor had passed the 21-day incubation period for the virus with no symptoms and was thus deemed uninfected.

The fear pandemic that these cases sparked off has reached epic proportions and acquired a distinctly political undertone.

The evidently bumbling nature of the Obama administration’s handling of on-shore Ebola infections was, until the White House chose Mr. Klain this week, de facto led by Centre for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, with Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco overseeing the inter-agency response to the virus and briefing the President.

Yet, what the country sorely lacks at this moment of looming crisis is a Surgeon-General, who would, in an ideal world, be the public health leader at the forefront of such outbreaks.

The need for such a leader couldn’t be direr.

As liberal publication Think Progress explained, nurses in the U.S. are complaining that they have not been getting consistent information about what they are supposed to do to treat a potential case of Ebola; and two-thirds of Americans say they are worried about a widespread Ebola epidemic in this country, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Former Surgeon-General Regina Benjamin put it succinctly: “The Surgeon-General is America’s doctor, delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand … Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.”

Why has Dr. Murthy’s nomination run into a quagmire of partisan obstructionism?

He was appointed by the President a little more than one year ago, and in February this year he faced a gruelling Senate confirmation hearing; yet since then there has been no forward movement.

His hearing itself gave clue about the stagnation that was to come, especially Republican Senator Lamar Alexander’s remarks to Dr. Murthy’s criticising his views on gun control.

In that context the Senator referenced Dr. Murthy’s mention of this subject on his Twitter account, where he had said, “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk because they’re scared of [the National Rifle Association]. Guns are a health care issue.”

Although Dr. Murthy defended his position saying, “I do not intend to use the Surgeon-General’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control,” adding that that his views on gun control were based on his experience as a doctor and treating people who are victims of gun violence, it was clear that the long shadow of the NRA had clouded Dr. Murthy’s chances.

Debilitating impact

Of course the Senators also hammered away at Dr. Murthy’s apparent support for the inclusion of contraception for women under the terms of Mr. Obama’s landmark health care reform law — The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 — even though the good doctor defended his view on the matter saying that it was “informed by science,” and based on the abundance of medical evidence that “when women have access to contraception, it results in better outcomes for mothers.”

With a lengthy list of Obama nominees similarly facing delays or blockades on Capitol Hill over their nominations, including the much-awaited ambassadorial hopeful for India, Richard Verma, it is possible that the absence of these persons will have an increasingly debilitating impact on a wide range of policy areas.

Next month’s mid-term elections are expected to result in greater conservative control over both houses of Congress and if that were to happen the stalemate may only deepen over time. In the event of such a shift, Mr. Obama and the country he governs may slide into a multi-year morass of low-grade policies.

narayan@thehindu.co.in


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