Dana Milbank: Ebola infects coverage of Africa summit

08/07/2014 2:03 PM

08/07/2014 2:05 PM

WASHINGTON – Ebola was not supposed to have a prominent place on the agenda for this week’s Africa summit. But it keeps infecting the discussion.

Forty African heads of state visited Washington this week, snarling traffic as the Obama administration highlights what it describes as “one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing regions.”

But it’s difficult to keep the focus on foreign direct investment and electric transmission when there is a HEMORRHAGIC FEVER spreading OUT OF CONTROL!

It’s a challenge to have a sober debate about civil society and wildlife trafficking when medical experts say that the outbreak in four African countries is KILLING 70 PERCENT of victims with INTERNAL BLEEDING and other GRUESOME SYMPTOMS!

You’re bound to be distracted from talk about sustainable development and an independent judiciary when TV newscasts are showing PEOPLE IN SPACE SUITS taking Ebola patients to an ATLANTA HOSPITAL!

The host country’s fascination with the outbreak is a source of irritation for African leaders, most of whose countries are not affected. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, said at a forum Tuesday that Ebola “is not an African disease. You have to see this virus as a threat against humanity.”

Moderator Charlie Rose asked African leaders to “tell me what your fears are” about the Ebola virus. The heads of state bristled.

“Right now the epidemic is in West Africa; Tanzania is in East Africa,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said. He added that “the whole of the African continent is being perceived as if everywhere, everybody is suffering from Ebola.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Rose interjected.

Kikwete persisted. “But this is the perception that you get. … Africa is a continent. There are 54 countries.”

The frustration is understandable. When Africa makes news in the United States, it’s usually about famine, civil war, genocide, terrorism or AIDS. It’s just bad luck (or bad timing by U.S. health officials) that two Americans with Ebola flew here for treatment as the summit was beginning. The media reacted predictably, using traffic-helicopter footage to cover the arrival of the first victim, as if it were a car chase.

On Tuesday afternoon, Fox News host Neil Cavuto floated a proposal: “How about banning travel to and from any African nation that is dealing with these Ebola outbreaks?”

His guest, Dan Bongino, a Republican congressional candidate in Maryland, replied, “You know, Neil, I don’t think you can overreact to this.”

Apparently not. On CNN, host Chris Cuomo asked former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a sponsor of some summit events, about a man being tested for Ebola in New York. “People are scared, Mr. Mayor, they are,” Cuomo said.

“Chris, it’s sort of like the guy who kills his parents and then tries to throw himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan,” Bloomberg replied. “You’re creating this kind of fear.”

The administration isn’t helping. Officials opted to restrict news coverage of the summit – a poor example to set for nations wrestling with journalistic freedoms.

The State Department announced Wednesday that Secretary of State John Kerry’s welcome to the African leaders would be “closed press,” as would his appearance at the summit session “Peace and Regional Stability.” Kerry’s meetings with the Algerian, Namibian and Ugandan leaders were open only to “official photographers,” or those employed by governments.

Not a single event on Kerry’s schedule Wednesday was listed as open to the media.

That may have prevented pesky questions about Ebola, which fits with the Obama administration’s decision to keep the disease largely off the agenda. Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, in a conference call held by the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, said it’s “deplorable” that there is “no particular focus for a discussion of Ebola” at the summit.

Asked about that criticism, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said relationships with Africa are “much more diverse and broad than just focusing on that one specific issue.”

Still, there was no ignoring Ebola. Obama briefly referred to the disease in his remarks to the leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was the topic of the first question at his Wednesday evening news conference. He didn’t mention Ebola in his toast to African leaders at the White House on Tuesday night, but he did say that “the blood of Africa runs through our family.”

Stand down, cable news: Ebola cannot be transmitted through the kind of blood the president was talking about.

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