Blame Game Distracts from Real Debate over Ebola Crisis


Español The first patient to be diagnosed with the Ebola virus in the United States has unfortunately passed away. As reports of health-care workers diagnosed with the virus have hit the news, talking heads have assigned culpability to their least favored figures in politics.

The blame game, it seems, has little to do with understanding the risks and urging the public to deal with them responsibly, but everything to do with politicizing the so-called crisis.

Once the discussion shifted its focus to the lack of a vaccine, talking heads ignored the role of the market and concentrated on the US government’s failure to fund research dedicated to Ebola studies. This injection of political spin, unfortunately, ignores the real problem and waters down the discussion.

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What Both Sides Are Claiming

From the very moment the first reports of Eric Duncan’s health began pouring in, pundits across the board directed their outrage toward their least favorite branch of government.

For Democrats, Congress was to blame for cutting the National Institutes of Health budget, thus purportedly slashing funds that could have been secured for the development of a vaccine. For Republicans, President Barack Obama was to blame, for not instituting a travel ban as soon as the number of cases of Ebola in West Africa began to increase.

While the outrage is natural, its diversion to the blame game serves only one purpose: playing politics with people’s lives.

Republicans defending the travel ban are just as clueless as Democrats blaming congress, but let me zero in on what some Democrats have been using as an excuse to play politics with the Ebola outbreak.

Arguing from Fiction

Contrary to popular belief, overall funding for the NIH has increased 69 percent since 2000. While the development of an Ebola vaccine could be saving thousands of lives at this very moment, NIH has been backing unusual research that appears to have obtained more funds than the Ebola-vaccine project.

Among the many studies funded by the federal government, through grants secured by NIH, a few stand out for how much they cost taxpayers and how little difference they can make in people’s lives. Some of the expenses include a US$2.4 million “origami” condom project, a $592,000 study into chimps’ poop-throwing skills, and a $257,000 online game developed to serve as a companion to first lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

(European Commission)
Quarantine workers seeking to contain Ebola in Sierra Leone. (European Commission)

The Local-Knowledge Problem

For families with loved ones infected with the deadly disease, an Ebola vaccine is worth more than extended research into what makes a chimp a better communicator. However, staying angry with the government for picking one particular project misses the point: no government should offer grants to one medical research project over another, simply because central planners don’t have the knowledge the market has.

Simply put, it’s impossible for the government to identify what people need in time to fund research into it, because those in elected office and their appointees do not have all the information it would require to make a such a well-informed decision.

When the government picks up a particular product or service as a favorite through subsidies, companies responsible for developing pharmaceuticals — or any other medical product — obtain a mixed signal. The artificial demand created by the government’s incentives overshadows voices that see the need and demand for other products and services. The sought-for Ebola vaccine is just one of many, as the private sector remains in the dark regarding what the public actually values.

By ignoring this reality, pundits fuel hatred between political opposites while keeping the public in the dark about the government’s real role in this mess.

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