Two years ago this month, the Ebola crisis in West Africa burst into American consciousness when a pair of U.S. health workers became critically ill battling the epidemic and health officials raced to bring them home for treatment.
The pair, physician Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol, almost surely would have died if they hadn’t been airlifted from Monrovia, Liberia, to a special facility in Atlanta, where they eventually regained their health. Or if U.S. officials had listened to one of the loudest voices of opposition to that move: Donald Trump.
Here are Trump’s sentiments as news of Brantly’s return was spreading:
Brantly, a Forth Worth physician working for the missionary group Samaritan’s Purse in Monrovia, became infected with the lethal virus while caring for Liberians as Ebola spread through their capital. He arrived at the Emory University treatment center on Aug. 2, touching off considerable panic here and igniting a ferocious debate about the U.S. role in quelling the outbreak.
Writebol, a North Carolina nurse whose job was to help disinfect health-care personnel who treated the sick, arrived a few days later.
Trump also tweeted that without an end to flights from West Africa to the United States, “the plague will start and spread inside our ‘borders.’ ”
In the end, calmer, well-trained authorities prevailed — although not without stumbling — and the Ebola outbreak is a painful memory here and in Africa, where it killed 11,324 people. But in retrospect, the episode provides an early glimpse of much that has become familiar about the Republican presidential nominee: the Twitter blasts, the conspiracy theories, the need for a “wall” (this one figurative) to keep Americans safe. And a proposed policy that whole populations — in this case, Africans from three nations — might have to be barred from the United States.
Trump would later take to Instagram to protest the U.S. government’s decision to send troops to West Africa to fight the epidemic.
Trump and others who worried about the government’s ability to control the virus were right about one thing: The U.S. public health system wasn’t as well prepared as authorities hoped. When Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian infected with Ebola, showed up at a Dallas emergency room on the night of Sept. 25, 2014, hospital personnel sent him home despite his obvious symptoms and his admission that he had come from West Africa a few days earlier. Two nurses were infected, and Duncan became the first person to die of Ebola on U.S. soil.
Trump’s Democratic opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, took the opposite approach to addressing the epidemic, on the rare occasion that she mentioned it at all. At an October 2014 fundraiser, she said the United States would have to invest resources in controlling the crisis in Africa.
“We can’t say we’re not going to be involved because these things are somebody else’s problems, because in the world of interdependence that we currently live in, a lot of those problems end up eventually on our doorstep,” Clinton said.
Brantly’s medical evacuation to Atlanta created so much furor that his arrival and his slow walk from an ambulance to the hospital while wrapped in a protective suit were covered live on television. President Obama addressed the nation’s jitters. “Keep in mind that Ebola is not something that is easily transmitted. That’s why, generally, outbreaks dissipate,” he said. “But the key is identifying, quarantining, isolating those who contract it and making sure that practices are in place that avoid transmission.”
Trump later called Obama “psycho” and questioned his mental health.
Soon after that tweet, the media would be filled with stories about an infected New York doctor’s travels around the city, although the disease is spread only by direct contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person. Trump blamed the president.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a Trump ally, would famously quarantine a returning nurse who had tested negative for Ebola in a tent at University Hospital in Newark. The governors of New York and Illinois announced similar quarantine rules, as did Samaritan’s Purse, the organization for which Brantly worked. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) later loosened the rules.
(Trump’s foundation, by the way, has supported Samaritan’s Purse. The Donald J. Trump Foundation lists two $25,000 donations to the missionary group, one in 2012 and one in 2013. And last week, when he traveled to Baton Rouge to tour the flood devastation there, Trump and running mate Mike Pence met with Franklin Graham, president and chief executive of the organization. They also spoke with volunteers and were cheered in front of a Samaritan’s Purse mobile kitchen.)
Much of the argument was about whether to cut off flights between the United States and the parts of West Africa where the infection was raging: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Several airlines from other countries did suspend service. The Obama administration and others argued that such a policy would be disastrous for the West African nations, which needed U.S. help and engagement to avoid an even deeper crisis.
A Trump spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, did not respond to emailed questions on Monday about Trump’s position on Ebola. Attempts to reach Brantly and Writebol by email also were unsuccessful.