OK, it’s not really surprising to learn that Rush Limbaugh believes that the return of two US health care volunteer medical personnel from Africa who contracted Ebola is just another Obama plot so that he and the Democrat Party ‘can lead the compassion train.’. If that’s all the smoke and mirrors Rush can come up with, we could just laugh it off. But Rush is not alone.
Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Ann Coulter – all prominent conservative commentators and in some cases would-be Presidential candidates – each took to the airwaves or the Twitter-verse to denounce the Administration decision to treat the medical missionaries in the US — and even denounce the missionaries themselves for being so foolish as to volunteer to work in African ‘cesspools.’
So much for Mother Teresa; never did sainthood (as well as support for the overseas missions of evangelical Christians) go so quickly out of style on the Far Right. That latter misstep by Coulter and others (which did not pass unnoticed among their heretofore allies among born-again Christians) shows just how hysterically motivated the Tea Party types are to somehow spread panic and fear over what they perceive is a disease that can be viscerally linked with the President’s own African heritage. Who needs Birtherism when you can broadcast fear of an African-borne pandemic?
Then Limbaugh went out of his way to quote the head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and another US health official, out of context, to the effect that Ebola ‘s spread to US was inevitable and that merely ‘touching’ an Ebola corpse was infective, thereby undermining the notion that Ebola was much easier to spread than the media had been consistently reporting. In context, however, it is clear that the CDC head was talking about victims of Ebola contracted elsewhere would inevitably travel to the US (including for treatment), and the concern with respect to West African customs of kissing corpses, including the bodies of the deceased Ebola victims.
It is clear as a matter of standard medical understanding that Ebola is simply not spread by airborne germs or aerosols. Only direct bodily contact between humans can transmit this disease.
So the Ebola fear-mongers then moved on to another way to spread panic and distrust of the scientific and governmental response, by linking the Ebola outbreak to their resistance to comprehensive immigration reform and the recent surge in the flow of refugee children into the US. Republican members of the House of Representatives directly raised the prospect that immigrant children could be carrying Ebola into America, without any evidence that Ebola had spread to Central America or any evidence of the disease being discovered in the medical screening of the thousands of children that have come across the border in recent years.
Nevertheless, right wing media commentators including Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and Laura Ingraham quickly spread the word that Ebola victims had already crossed our borders in droves illegally as part of an Obama Administration plot to introduce the disease into the US (so that, as Limbaugh has asserted, Obama would have a new ‘crisis’ where he could emerge as hero).
The campaign to convince the public that an introduction of Ebola into the United States was part of government plot also seized on the issue of the ‘super-secret serum,’ as Limbaugh called it, that was being used to treat the two American physicians who had been brought to Atlanta for treatment at Emery University through the efforts of the CDC, among others. First of all, there’s nothing ‘super-secret’ about the experimental Ebola medication. Five bioscience companies are known to working on new Ebola-fighting agents, two of which (Perfectus and Crucell) are directly supported by the National Institutes of Health, and another two (Tekmira and Biocryst) are working under grants from the US Department of Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Incidentally, these facts give the lie to Limbaugh’s assertion that the anti-Ebola efforts have been simply a ‘private enterprise’ matter not involving the government, and Dr. Ben Carson’s assertions that the US agencies concerned are ignoring the terrorism threat posed by Ebola.
Limbaugh went on to intentionally misquote President Obama’s response to a reporter’s question about why the new serum was not being provided in quantity to the African nations currently most affected by the Ebola outbreak.
Here is what Obama actually said: “I think we have to let the science guide us.….[T]he countries affected are the first to admit that what happened here is the public health systems have been overwhelmed. They weren’t able to identify and then isolate cases quickly enough. As a result, it spread more rapidly than has been typical with periodic Ebola outbreaks that occurred previously.”
Here is how Limbaugh translated (‘paraphrased’ was his word) what Obama said for his national radio audience: “Even those countries, they’d be the first to tell you they don’t want the serum. They’re not ready for it. Only in advanced cultures are we capable.’ Of course, Obama said no such thing, but the straw man Limbaugh created allowed him to then criticize Obama again when the affected African health departments quite predictably asked that the experimental drugs be made available to their victims.
These tactics by Limbaugh and his fellow Tea Party broadcasters seem intended to use the Ebola outbreak to undermine confidence in the government and to drive a wedge between the President and racial minorities. In that sense they are reminiscent of a similar effort by right wing media in April this year to assert that Obama and the CDC were launching a program to reduce minority ‘births’ in the US whereas the program was really aimed at reducing unintended teenage pregnancies.
None of this minor league game playing would matter a hill of beans but for the fact that in many of America’s rural Congressional districts, a day-long diet of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, Laura Ingraham et al is the only version of ‘all-news’ radio available on the dial. And we know such districts have elected Tea Party stalwarts who hold the Speaker of the House hostage against any compromise on any issue with the President.
So long as Limbaugh remains the de factor Speaker of the House (which has not passed any legislation Limbaugh opposes in this session of Congress since the Fiscal Cliff fix), his efforts to politicize Ebola over the airwaves require attention, diagnosis and quarantine, just like any other hazardous material.
Recently published on the Huffington Post.
By Terry Connelly, Dean Emeritus, Ageno School of Business, Golden Gate University
Terry Connelly is an economic expert and dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and global head of investment banking at Cowen & Company. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education.