The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, Ebola is pretty much following the standard zombie scenario

Despite a lot of media sensationalism, this is NOT the scene outside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (Laura McDermott/The Flint via AP)

A few weeks ago science writer Anjana Auja did me a kindness in the Financial Times by noting:

Daniel Drezner, a politics professor at Tufts University, once wrote about what would happen if zombies rose from the dead and began to eat the living. It was an ingenious conceit: only in such an extreme scenario could various policy interventions be tested to destruction. The Ebola outbreak, now officially an epidemic, almost feels like Professor Drezner’s book made real.

When I read that, I chuckled to myself and  moved on to other matters.

After observing how Americans have reacted to the Ebola pandemic over the month of October, however, I now kinda feel like this:

See, after discussing the effects of domestic and bureaucratic politics on counter-zombie responses, I closed with the following rueful paragraph:

There is a tragic irony to these predictions and recommendations. Recall the discussion of how domestic politics would affect counterzombie policies: government institutions would be able to act in an unconstrained manner at first, but politics would impose a stronger constraint over time. The organizational perspective offers the reverse narrative — bureaucratic competency will improve over time. If both domestic political pressures and bureaucratic politics play a role in affecting government policies, their combined effect could be doubly disastrous. Government agencies would have the most autonomy when they are most likely to make bad decisions. By the time these bureaucracies adapted to new zombie exigencies, they would face political hurdles that could hamper their performance.

This is exactly what’s been happening over the past month.

On the one hand, it now seems clear that the CDC overestimated the ability of U.S. hospitals to follow Ebola protocols, and that this initial assumption contributed to at least two health-care workers contracting the virus. As Yuval Levin noted in the National Review:

We have already learned, for instance, that in the case of a serious public-health crisis, our public officials will have a tendency to express vast overconfidence while relying on plans and procedures that demand an unrealistic level of competence from an enormous number of people in a wide variety of circumstances. The president should not have said that it was unlikely that anyone with Ebola would reach our shores, and the CDC director should not have said that essentially any hospital in America can handle Ebola — and more important, his agency should not have believed that and built its response plan on that premise.

As time has passed, however, the CDC appears to be moving down the learning curve. Moving a new Ebola patient to a hospital with more isolation wards and greater experience handling infectious diseases, for example, demonstrates some organizational learning. The Dallas hospital’s observed mistakes in procedure offer a cautionary tale for the rest of the health-care system, decreasing the likelihood that such mistakes will be made again.

On the other hand, the domestic political response to the government’s initial blunders will likely make the CDC’s job much harder going forward. You’re already seeing local freak-outs that have no foundation in logic. Major political magazines are now pretty much calling for panic. That wouldn’t matter so much if it wasn’t for the fact that at least two sitting United States Senators — one of whom is planning to run for president in 2016 — are echoing those wild-eyed claims. President Obama, scrambling to contain the political fallout, now suggests that an Ebola czar might be a good idea.

At this rate, Congress will authorize the creation of a new Department of Ebola Security before the end of the calendar year.

So it’s now a race between government agencies moving down the learning curve in handling Ebola and the public and political hysteria about the existence of the disease in the Western Hemisphere. So far, the hysteria is winning. But I hope Ben White is correct:

This is definitely one area where I hope my book turns out to be overly pessimistic.