Well, your correspondent was all ready to disquisition on Iowa City, Iowa — the achingly hip college town in the state’s south east — and the concept of the “blue fortress”, very liberal cities that thrive in deep Republican territory (Austin, Texas is a good example) are thus shaped by a sense of specialness and isolation, and in turn shape American liberalism. Hands off, M.A. candidacy lofos looking for a topic, that’s mine. But not today.

Today our old friend Ebola made a reappearance amid the zombie-esque process of the midterms, with the announcement that a second nurse from Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas has come down with the virus and flew not once but twice after exposure to the US patient zero, the late Thomas Duncan, and the first nurse who caught the virus, Nina Pham. Patient three’s conduct is inexplicable by any rational measure, flying to Cleveland from Dallas for the weekend and then returning three days later. While we learnt about this story — some of us watching it on CNN in airport departure lounges — further details emerged of the chaos and poor management at Texas Presbyterian, with “protective” gear allegedly leaving the wearer exposed at the neck, soiled sheets and towels piling up in rooms, no real containment procedure. We’ll find out soon if this inadequate care is due to budget cuts by a low-taxing state, or profit maximisation by a private hospital, or some Tea Party paradisiacal combination of both.

In the meantime, Frontier Airlines, the Denver-based carrier on which patient three flew, is contacting all 131 people who flew with her — and, unannounced, perhaps contacting another 600 or so people who flew in the four subsequent flights the jet in question made. The spread of the disease, and the carelessness associated with that spread, has finally convinced people to pay attention to it as a threat in its own right, the meeja included. They really didn’t want to. They were desperate to keep the focus on Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL), a threat you can bomb into submission. Actually you can’t, but you can bomb them and that feels like you’re doing something. IS kept the focus on itself with recent beheadings (although the execution of a Kurdish journalist didn’t make the news here), and it was helped by retired Captain Al Shimkus, who reasoned that IS operatives could infect themselves with Ebola and spread it among the US population.

It was about the same time that Congressman Duncan Hunter made a series of bogus claims about IS operatives crossing the US-Mexican border, and that “abandoned prayer mats had been found there”. The hysteria culminated with CNN subtitling a news report “ISIS — the Ebola of terrorism”, or was it “Ebola — the ISIS of disease”? They might have used both. Fear wreaths American life, is a constant companion. You always have your fear with you. Fear on the street, of street people gathered at every corner of downtown, fear that you will lose your job and be among them, fear that you will lose your health insurance, fear of who might be packing a gun, fear of all the peoples of the world who want to kill you for being an American, for ancient oppressions they seem rather more well-informed about than you are. Fear, beyond that, of bodily things, of bad breath, skin tags, anal uncleanness as a product of using only toilet paper and not a two-stage process with a wet wipe (there are three separate ads devoted to this social crisis), and last but not least fear of the side effects read out in the ads for all the products that will relieve these other fears (side effects including suicidal ideation and sudden death have been reported).

“Anything’s possible. Indeed, the crisis could serve as a teachable moment about the need for well-run public services if Democrats were willing to grasp the nettle.”

So Ebola fits right in. But that also makes it hard to get a grip on. The immediate response of many has been to advocate blocking direct flights from West Africa. Since patient zero, Duncan, came through Brussels, that seems a half-useful measure at best (though the suggestion that it is not worth considering seems a somewhat brainless expression of knee-jerk liberalism), and banning those on west African passports will hardly exclude. Are we about to find out that Ebola is exploding across Africa and spreading elsewhere through multiple points of departure? The World Health Organization is predicting the rate of infection in central west Africa will rise to 10,000 per week.

Meanwhile, the global response remains chaotic, a product of the chaotic institutions with which we are running the world. While the UN attempts to cobble together a response — Americans are being erroneously told by their news networks that they alone are mounting assistance missions — people are scrambling to fill the gap. The Cubans have sent a brigade of doctors and nurses, and — a sign of the times — Facebook has contributed $25 million. Who knows, they might even pay some of the taxes they owe.

Anything’s possible. Indeed, the crisis could serve as a teachable moment about the need for well-run public services if Democrats were willing to grasp the nettle. The Republicans certainly have, with the moronic echo chamber of Fox News asserting that this demonstrates the inadequacy of government. Their solution is, a la Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation‘s resident libertarian, “tokens for everything”. Want a clean bandage, pay a token. Want antibiotics, pay a token. Etc.

Against this, the argument could be made forcefully that poor, underfunded government is lethal, and Texas’ disastrous handling of this is a case in point. But Democrats, many of them, like many in centre-Left parties everywhere, really don’t have the energy to make their own case anymore. They barely believe in their own liberalism/social democracy, and are more fearful of their own base, and the prospect that their demands and expectations might move Left, than they are of their opponents. They will, as they have done many things lately, skip the politics entirely. But should the situation worsen, others may take up that cause. If war teaches Americans geography, disease might teach them civics (and for the record, I have no great confidence that Australia will handle this any better). There are no fortresses, blue or red, against the truth of a virus, that we are all bound up together, and will fall or rise together.

Peter Fray

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