Ebola crisis reveals differences between liberals and conservatives: opinion

Ebola virus (L) and Enterovirus 68 (R) (CDC)

There may only be a few Ebola cases in the United States, but the entire country is worried sick. Every day, travelers from Ebola-plagued regions of Africa arrive at U.S. airports, the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t seem to be in control of much of anything and our leaders are struggling to inspire confidence in the government’s response.

“In the event that Ebola spreads to Alabama, we are ready and we are prepared to respond,” said Gov. Robert Bentley at a recent news conference at the Alabama Department of Public Health in Montgomery.

What does that even mean, specifically? Most people don’t know, and I doubt our leaders know, either. They’re probably just trying to keep everyone calm.

Meanwhile, both political parties have stitched the crisis into a political football to kick around during the midterm elections. Republicans fault incompetent officials, and there’s certainly truth to that. It’s imperative that our government’s efforts be overseen by the best and brightest in medicine and disaster response, not lawyers or bureaucrats (as is the case).  Democrats blame insufficient budgets, and resources are part of the issue, too. It’s also imperative that we sufficiently equip those tasked with stopping the virus. But is either imperative being accomplished? I’m not so sure.

In any event, the bipartisan criticism reveals less about our government’s ability to control pandemics than our own unrealistic and borderline ideological belief than it even can. That’s the real conservative vs. liberal lesson to learn from all this.

At the core of conservatism is the notion of doubt. It, along with individual liberty, is what fuels our belief in limited government. We don’t believe that successful government is simply a matter of smarter people with more money writing and executing better plans. Competence and resources are needed, of course, but conservatives believe the best approach isn’t dependent on well-laid plans that demand perfect execution by perfect people. Rather, it takes into account the way humans actually behave. We only need to look into the mirror to see some of the traits that have tripped up our well-made plans throughout history: selfishness, laziness, inattention to detail, anger, incompetence, ignorance, exhaustion.

So here’s the hard truth: Sometimes a problem is simply beyond our government’s ability to centrally control to the perfect degree that many expect. The problem of Ebola, for instance, is extremely large in scope and can be significantly impacted by the actions of a single individual. Are we really surprised when individuals act, well, human?

The government can write a set of protocols for doctors and nurses to follow, but they’re only words on paper until the guidelines are explained face-to-face. Even then we should expect mistakes, especially when someone is faced with an emergency situation where protocols cannot be followed. The government can print questionnaires asking airline passengers from Africa to report if they’ve been around someone with Ebola, but we should also expect at least some of them to lie.

In short, we should expect people to be people, and plan for that rather than foolishly thinking that the universe will cooperate with the words we’ve written on paper.

Do you think a nurse won’t rush to help someone who stumbles into a clinic doubled-over in pain? Will everyone stop to put on one of those spacesuits before helping the patient into a chair? That’s why I’m not reassured when Bentley says that UAB Hospital in Birmingham “is prepared” for the crisis. Prepared for what? One patient? A dozen? How about a hundred?

On the other hand, would you lie to get your family out of Liberia? Lying would be the easiest of the things I’d be willing to do, truth be told. That’s why we’re not reassured when the president says we’ll stop Ebola in its tracks but that we’re not stopping flights from nations where it’s running rampant.

We should expect fault lines in all our best Ebola plans and prepare for those failures. That should help us through the current crisis. Once we get past this, we should reexamine two key tenets of liberalism – centralized control and open borders – that will continue to place us all at risk in the future.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)