At yesterday’s Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center, George Annas, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health, discussed the legal and public health response to Ebola. One issue that he raised was that in response to the outbreak in West Africa, President Obama classified the situation as a matter of national security rather than a public health issue. It is not clear to me that these categories need be mutually exclusive. (To be clear, Annas did not assert that they were.) Regardless, retrospectively the decision to frame Ebola as a threat to national security appears to have allowed bi-partisan support for a large scale humanitarian aid project, in a way that alternative framing of the problem may not have. It is interesting to note that the President actively encouraged the Ebola outbreak to be perceived as a “biological danger,” a “national security threat,” and “not just a humanitarian or economic concern.” However, framing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a national security issue did not only come with the positive externality of increased support for foreign aid. Once a domestic issue, there was some confusion as to who was “in charge” of the handful of Ebola-related issues that arose–with the President appointing an Ebloa Czar, Gov. Christie issuing quarantine notice for Kaci Hickox, and the response of the CDC blaming the nurses for breaking protocol the Dallas hospital case, serving just a few main examples.
Although framing Ebola as a national security issue may have allowed for increased support for the United States’ role internationally, it is unclear whether the domestic response to Ebola could have been more coordinated had this initially been framed as a public health issue.