What happened to Ebola?

The Ebola outbreak was one of 2014’s biggest stories. But now, by the year’s end, we rarely hear about it. So what happened?

For one, the survival rate among patients is improving, at least in Sierra Leone. Among patients admitted since November 4 to a particular clinic in Sierra Leon’s capital, only 24 percent have died.

All this has led to a smaller number of cases than the CDC expected by year’s end. One of its estimates put the January 2015 number at 1.4 million cases—73 times higher than the 19,000 cases reported by December 21 (that’s embarrassing!).

Ebola also failed to show up in the United States after the most recent confirmed case in New York City on October 24, and those Americans who did contract Ebola fared fairly well on average—just one in four died of the disease.

So to sum up, Ebola didn’t turn out to be as big of a deal as either the CDC or some paranoid, alarm-sounding Republicans made it out to be. Those who predicted we’d all die unless government took drastic measures (like banning flights) were wrong.

This raises an interesting thought experiment: Suppose government had banned flights from infected countries. Suppose they did so on October 25—one day after the most recent confirmed case in America. It’s likely we’d credit the lack of any further cases to government’s action. We’d pat ourselves on the back for supporting a flight ban, and we’d have “evidence” to support the use of more flight bans in the future should something like the Ebola outbreak happen again.

This “evidence,” of course, would be faulty. Ebola wasn’t going to spread any further in the United States whether government banned flights or not. This is fact.

But suppose something else. Suppose other actions the government has taken to combat some perceived threat—say, drone strikes of suspected terrorists in the Middle East to combat the threat of terror, or mandating certain vaccines to combat widespread outbreaks of disease—have had the same effect of apparent usefulness but have, in reality, fought a non-existent threat. How many of those roles government assumes are really just big wastes of money?

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