Public health experts continue to assure Americans that a widespread Ebola outbreak is very unlikely to happen on U.S. soil, and that message is now getting through to most people, according to new polling from Pew Research Center. But it depends on their political affiliation.
In a representative national survey of more than 1,000 adults, Pew found that just 11 percent are “very worried” that they or someone in their immediate family will be exposed to Ebola. Another 21 percent are “somewhat worried.” Meanwhile, most people — 67 percent — say that they aren’t very concerned about the possibility. That’s much lower than the number of Americans who feared being exposed during other recent public health scares, like the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the 2005 bird flu outbreak (both of which involved diseases that are easier to catch than the Ebola virus).
However, some differences emerge when participants are broken down by party lines. Nearly 70 percent of Democrats say they have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the government’s ability to contain the spread of Ebola, compared to 28 percent who say they have little or no confidence. That’s a two to one margin in favor of U.S. officials’ competence. But Republicans are much more evenly split, with 48 percent saying they have confidence in the government and 51 percent saying they don’t.
That partisan divide has become particularly evident over the past several days, as Republican lawmakers have accused President Obama of not doing enough to counteract a future Ebola outbreak on American soil. They’ve been calling on him to close the borders, even though health experts say that would likely make the situation worse. Several Republican leaders are also pressuring Obama to appoint a public health expert to oversee the nation’s response to Ebola, and put forth a list of suggestions of people who all served in the George W. Bush administration. CNN recently reported that Ebola is becoming an election issue in competitive midterm races.
Some elected officials have explicitly suggested that Obama’s administration can’t be trusted to effectively handle the public health epidemic. “GOP agenda this week: Paint Obama as incompetent,” CNBC proclaimed this week, reporting that Republicans are embarking on a “renewed effort to paint the White House as bumbling on issues that worry many Americans.”
Texas Representative Randy Weber (R), for instance, recently said that although he “doesn’t want to sound alarmist,” the politicized controversy over Benghazi proves that the Ebola epidemic is going to get worse. “It doesn’t foment faith in people to think that our administration’s on top of things when they’ve got such an abysmal track record,” Weber said.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that it is prepared to ramp up airport screening of travelers who are flying from the Western Africans countries at the heart of the Ebola outbreak, although it’s not yet clear what the specifics of the new screening protocol will be. But the move is unlikely to change the tenor of the recent cable news coverage of the issue, which has stoked fears about Ebola-infected “illegal immigrants” crossing the border.
According to Pew, the confidence gap cuts both ways. During the 2005 concerns over an outbreak of bird flu — which was shortly after the Bush administration was widely criticized for botching the response to Hurricane Katrina — just 35 percent of Democrats were confident that the government could handle the public health scare. Confidence among Republicans, however, was at 75 percent.