There’s been a lot written lately about how Republicans are exploiting public fears over Ebola for electoral gain ahead of the midterms. They’re “the Doom-and-Disease Chorus,” they’re “using the specter of a major Ebola outbreak as an election-year base-mobilization strategy,” and they’re turning entire states into simmering fear cauldrons.
It’s a two-part strategy: You need the setup man to get out there and convince everyone that the country is on the brink of a full-blown epidemic that not even Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo can stop; and then you need the closer to offer up the feel-good but ultimately futile policy prescription that preys on the general lack of faith in government. And in the role of the setup man, no Republican has been more enthusiastic than Rand Paul.
The junior senator from Kentucky has been in hot demand as a critic of the government’s response to Ebola, given that he’s a presumed 2016 presidential candidate and also a doctor. Granted, he’s an eye doctor and in no way an expert in virology or disease containment, but he’s still more doctor-ish than your average Republican and his words carry more weight given his medical background. And in his capacity as a doctor and an elected official representing the Republican Party, he’s done everything he can to hype and exaggerate the dangers posed by Ebola.
More than anything else, Paul wants you to believe that Ebola is a highly communicable disease of the sort that causes global pandemics. On Oct. 1, he called in to Glenn Beck’s radio program and said “it’s a real mistake to underplay the danger of a worldwide pandemic.” Ebola is “an incredibly transmissible disease that everyone is downplaying, saying it’s hard to catch,” he added. “Well, we have physicians and health workers who are catching it who are completely gloved down and taking every precaution and they’re still getting it.” It’s not clear what, exactly, he was referring to – healthcare workers in Africa are woefully undersupplied when it comes to basic protections against Ebola transmission, like gloves, masks, sanitizing agents, even working sinks.
A couple of days later he talked to Breitbart News and revisited the pandemic language, invoking Spanish influenza and the bubonic plague: “Could we have a worldwide pandemic? The Spanish flu in 1918 killed 21 million people, the plague in the 14th century killed 25 million people; I’m not saying that’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Since then, two Dallas healthcare workers who cared for the now-deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan have tested positive for the virus, and Paul has only amped up the terrifying rhetoric. “This thing is incredibly contagious,” he told a group of New Hampshire college students, according to MSNBC. “Is this going to be a terrible thing that runs throughout the United States, I think nobody knows.”
And here, courtesy of CNN, is video of Rand Paul telling people not to trust the government when they say “don’t worry, it’s not that contagious” because you don’t even need to touch an infected person to get it; they can be as far as three feet away.
It’s not like AIDS, Paul said – it’s worse than AIDS! “If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them,” he explained. Ebola! At a cocktail party! Oh what an ignominious way to go. Generally speaking, people with high fevers, internal hemorrhaging and failing livers don’t tend to hit the cocktail circuit too aggressively, but if someone sneezes you should probably hide behind the sushi bar and guzzle Purell.
It’s tough to comprehend just how thoroughly irresponsible this all this. Right now half of the country wrongly believes that you can catch Ebola from someone who isn’t showing symptoms. Nearly 40 percent wrongly believe you can catch it by shaking hands with a non-symptomatic person. One quarter are under the misperception that Ebola is transmitted through the air. These are the people that Dr. Rand Paul is speaking to as he tries to lend official and medical credibility to their fears and misunderstandings.
And he’s doing this, he says, out of a desire to be honest with America. “I don't want to create panic,” he told CNN, "but I think it's also a mistake on the other side of the coin to underplay the risk of this." A few days later he’s speculating on whether the disease will jump from cocktail party to cocktail party as it burns its way across the entire country. If he doesn’t want to start a panic, then he’s doing a terrible job of it.