What we learned, or didn’t, from the Ebola crisis

Political Theater, Episode 122

Derek Najdzin, hangs out with Duke, a West Highland white terrier, in Meridian Hill Park in Washington on April 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Derek Najdzin, hangs out with Duke, a West Highland white terrier, in Meridian Hill Park in Washington on April 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Dick
Posted April 9, 2020 at 7:00am

What have we learned about global pandemics and when did we learn it? A little over two years ago, on this podcast, we talked to Reid Wilson about his book “Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak.” Far from being a downer, Wilson, national correspondent at The Hill, wrote about many of the things we did right to avert a global catastrophe in 2014, countering the disease in West Africa and containing it admirably on U.S. shores. How things change.

“We did basically everything that was on the ‘don’t’ list,” Wilson says on the latest Political Theater podcast, where we discuss the current situation, as well as reflect on that March 21, 2018, conversation. “If the last outbreak was a study in how unready the world was for a global pandemic, this one’s going to be a study in how unready the United States was for a global pandemic.”

Wilson argues that the U.S. government’s change in posture toward the world is not only a whiplash politically, but “the lessons we did not learn from Ebola are now costing American lives” and the magnitude of the failure is almost unimaginable.

Given how all-consuming the coronavirus pandemic is, we dug up that initial podcast (Episode 11!) and, before reposting it, had a conversation with Wilson. While back in 2018 we discussed the book itself, we also framed our conversation amid the horrors of the opioid epidemic, which was claiming tens of thousands of lives each year.

Our talk is a reminder of how quickly circumstances can radically swerve, from the global perspective of our government in 2014 during the Ebola crisis to the professed “America first” sloganeering from the current administration; from the preparedness of U.S. authorities in building hospitals in Africa to our struggle to maintain working ventilators now; from standing up disease surveillance centers internationally to pulling U.S. scientists out of Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, one month before all hell started breaking loose there.

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