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Lessons learned in the battle against Ebola

What we learned from the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 helped lay the groundwork for the more recent response to the epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lauren Baer, a former senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what steps can be taken to help control the coronavirus pandemic.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What we learned from the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 helped lay the groundwork for the more recent response to the less deadly epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as we've just heard, pandemics are hard to contain for a number of reasons. Laura Baer was senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration and says there are still steps that can be taken to help control the coronavirus pandemic facing the world today. So, Lauren, what did we learn as a government, as a country from fighting Ebola?

  • Lauren Baer:

    Early action is critical to getting ahead of an infectious disease and forestalling a potential pandemic. And what we realized right from the outset was that this had the potential to be not only a public health crisis, but also an economic crisis, also a grave threat to America's national security. And because of that, because it was such a complex and multifaceted problem, we needed a coordinated whole-of-government response right from the beginning. That's why you saw the Obama administration create an Ebola Czar, and that's why you saw it leave in the wake of Ebola, an entire office within the National Security Council dedicated to dealing with the risk of pandemics and response to them if they arose.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's the difference on whether that office exists at the NSC or it doesn't?

  • Lauren Baer:

    The difference is, do you have the players and the experts on hand out there at the outset who are going to help you tackle a problem before it becomes a real crisis? And you know, one thing I want to convey to the American public is that this didn't have to be this way. We didn't need to be dealing with with death and just the fear on the scale that we have in the United States here. But what you had with Trump and his administration was almost a perfect storm, right? You have a leader who dislikes science, who distrusts experts. So he gets rid of that pandemic response office. He throws away the playbook. He ignores the warnings that were given to him in his daily intelligence briefings. You've got someone who doesn't like international cooperation. So he missed the opportunity at the outset for the U.S. to exercise global leadership and coordinate a global response to coronavirus. He failed to take the early actions, like ramping up testing, like encouraging social distancing way back in January that would have enabled us to get ahead of the virus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What are steps that the administration can still take that it's not too late for?

    It's never too late to cede control to the experts who really understand the disease, how it's spreading in the controls that need to be put in place to ensure that we suffer the least in this country. And interestingly, this week, you've seen cries for that from within the Republican Party itself, asking Trump to step aside, put the medical experts front and center. The second thing that the government can do. We've been hearing a lot on the news about things like the Defense Production Act, which would enable the U.S. government to ramp up production of things like ventilators and personal protective equipment for our medical personnel. This administration has invoked that, but they can still do more to ensure that our frontline health care workers are getting what they need. And the other thing that that the government can do is really coordinate action amongst states. The federal government is uniquely equipped to set nationwide policies and standards that all states should be adhering to. And I was reading last night, for example, there are ten states that still don't have statewide lockdowns. And that's a very frightening thing when we've seen the speed at which a cluster can arise when people move across state lines.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Internationally, considering your position from the State Department, what can the United States do now to take perhaps as delayed as it may be a leadership role or in trying to coordinate the, what countries are doing?

  • Lauren Baer:

    The Trump administration needs to recognize that this pandemic is as much a test of U.S. global leadership as any war. They could take some of the same steps that they could domestically, which is to say we need to cede control to the experts on the international stage. We need to keep politics out of this. And we need to allow our U.S. experts to coordinate with public health leaders globally so that we can bring the full weight of the U.S. government to bear.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the things learned that we saw was, for example, Asian countries, their responses, it seemed that they had learned from SARS. What's the case in African countries? Are they likely to be more prepared or not? Given that they have faced challenges like Ebola before?

  • Lauren Baer:

    What was critical to tamping down on Ebola was the fact that we had a coordinated global response. I would say they are less equipped now because we haven't seen that same global presence as we did in the Ebola crisis.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Lauren Baer, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Lauren Baer:

    Thank you for having me.

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