Ebola Politics

In a democratic society where government leaders are selected through political elections, fully separating politics from policy is never possible.  It’s important to try, however.  That notion applies to the unfolding problem of the emergence of Ebola in New York.  There’s no absolute script to follow, and it’s important and fair that government officials should be given room to adjust and change their plans and actions as they digest new information and problems.  Governor Cuomo’s statement that “this is just evolving and we’re just learning and you adjust to the facts as you learn them” is reasonable.  One of his most recent actions, however, has looked more politically focused, due to the manner and circumstances of his announcing it.

Thursday evening Cuomo and de Blasio held a joint press conference to announce that a doctor in Manhattan, recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, has Ebola.  They sought to reassure the public with a joint presentation on all that is being done for that particular patient and more broadly to stop Ebola from spreading.

On Friday, without informing Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo joined New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to announce that the New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority would implement mandatory quarantines for people “who had direct contact with an individual infected with the Ebola” in the three West African nations with serious Ebola outbreaks.  It represented a significant shift for Cuomo, who had initially dismissed calls for a broader ban on travelers from West Africa as unworkable, although on Sunday October 19th he said that “banning flights” is something that the federal government “should seriously consider”.  Rob Astorino, Cuomo’s Republican opponent, has been calling for a ban on commercial air flights from West Africa since October 7th.  (The Port Authority says that there are not any flights from the Ebola-affected countries to New York or New Jersey.)

On Saturday Thomas Kaplan of the New York Times asked Governor Cuomo “what would you say to people who hear your warnings and say you’re playing with peoples fears given the election coming up.”  Cuomo reacted harshly, terming the question “an obnoxious, irrational statement.”

The governor was also asked several times about announcing the new screening and quarantine procedures without first advising Mayor de Blasio.  When asked if Mayor de Blasio was “blindsided” by the governor’s 4:00 p.m. Friday announcement, he replied “no, I spoke to him about it last night.”  That, of course, would be after Governor Cuomo and Governor Christie made their announcement.  Asked at a later press conference on Saturday if “Mayor de Blasio found out about these new rules at the press conference with the rest of the world yesterday,” Governor Cuomo replied “I don’t know, you should ask the mayor.”

The Cuomo/Christie policy may well be right, and it’s certainly possible that it’s an evolution in policy rationally dictated by steadily changing circumstances.  It’s hard to understand the lack of coordination, or at least information, between Cuomo and his ostensible partner, however.  The absence of any engagement with the City, which will carry out much of the implementation, carries an unfortunate air of political expediency.