ONLY four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the US but the disease has become a dominant issue in midterm elections less than two weeks away.
Republicans, who are hoping to win a Senate majority, have seized on public worries that the virus could spread in the US to attack the response of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Democrats have accused the Republicans of “fear-mongering”, but a few have joined in the criticism as a way to distance themselves from Obama, whose approval ratings are just a tick over their lowest for his six years in the White House.
A recent poll found the disease is at the top of US voters’ minds as election day approaches, with 74 per cent saying it is a very or extremely important issue. Potential voters are not happy with the administration’s response, with 56 per cent expressing disapproval. Concerns deepened with the news last week that a fourth person had been diagnosed in the US with the virus – a doctor who had recently returned to New York City from Guinea, where he had been treating Ebola patients.
“Fear is a powerful instinct and to the degree it can be manipulated, both parties are going to do it,” said James Riddlesperger, a political scientist at Texas Christian University.
Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat facing a battle to keep her seat, recently broke ranks with her party to join her Republican challenger in calling on Obama to temporarily ban non-US citizens travelling from affected countries in West Africa. That switch came days after Hagan said such a tactic “is not going to help” unless it is part of a broader strategy.
The administration has refused to consider such a ban, though authorities have limited entrance by travellers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to five US airports.
Hagan’s North Carolina seat is one of six the Republicans need to take to assume the Senate majority, the biggest prize in the 4 November elections. If the Republicans take the Senate, they would have control of both houses of Congress, crushing Obama’s chances of advancing his legislative agenda in the final two years of his final term.
Other vulnerable Democratic senators have lashed out at Republicans. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, whose bid for a fourth term is endangered in the heavily Republican state, called on her opponent and other Republicans to stop whipping up fear and to “spend a little more time trying to fashion solutions”.
Her challenger, Bill Cassidy, has backed the idea of a travel ban and accused Obama of “feckless leadership” on a problem that poses an immediate danger. He and other Republican candidates have been especially critical of Obama’s appointment of a Democratic operative and insider to serve as the main co-ordinator of the government response.
At a debate in New Hampshire, Republican challenger Scott Brown lambasted Senator Jeanne Shaheen for not joining him in backing the travel ban idea. Shaheen in turn claimed that Brown is fear-mongering by trying to tie the issue to the need for greater US border security.
Obama recently announced a push for a faster federal reaction to new cases of Ebola after health officials acknowledged that they should have sent more people to Dallas, Texas, when the first person was diagnosed with the disease in the US.
The patient, Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, died on 8 October and two nurses caring for him were infected. In the first test for the new strategy, federal Ebola response squads – likened to public health Swat teams – were rushed to New York City after the doctor was confirmed to have the virus.
At a hearing on Friday in the House of Representatives, Republicans – and some Democrats – pressed on with their criticism over what they saw as the Obama administration’s failure to be prepared for the disease’s incursion into the US.
“I think you ought to hand your resignation in,” Republican John Mica told Nicole Lurie, assistant health and human services secretary for preparedness and response.
Lurie defended the administration’s policies and assured lawmakers that a large-scale outbreak of Ebola is unlikely in America.
“There is an epidemic of fear, but not of Ebola, in the United States,” she said.