On Friday, Sept. 25, 2014, Thomas Eric Duncan went to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. He had a high fever and stomach pains. He told the nurse he had recently been in Liberia, part of the Ebola zone. But he was a Black man with no health insurance, so he was released after being given antibiotics and Tylenol.
Two days later Duncan returned to the hospital in an ambulance. Two days after that, he was finally diagnosed with Ebola. Eight days later, he died alone in his hospital room.
The still unanswered question is why the hospital would send home a patient with a 103-degree fever and stomach pains, especially since the patient had informed the hospital that he had recently been in Liberia. And why was he sent back into the community when it was obvious that he was extremely ill and might well have a communicable disease?
Duncan was the first victim of Ebola in the US to have died. Others who contracted the disease received the very best treatment and as of this date all are recovering from Ebola.
The Dallas hospital acknowledged that mistakes were made. But not yet explained is how this all happened in a situation which left no margin for error. A number of excuses have been offered: there were no protocols, there were protocols but they were not observed, there was a problem with the software, there was a breakdown in the hospital’s communication system and the higher-ups were not informed, etc.
But someone decided that Duncan’s condition did not warrant hospitalization during his first visit there, much less being isolated and quarantined. Who made that decision and on what basis? Was it medical people or administrative personnel who were motivated by Duncan’s not having insurance?
According to members of Duncan’s family, “the most humiliating part of this ordeal was the treatment we received from the hospital. For the 10 days he was in the hospital, the staff not only refused to help us communicate with Thomas Eric, but also acted as an impediment. The day Thomas Eric died, we learned about it from the news media, not his doctors.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10/17/14)
Duncan was in the US for the first time to visit his son. By being cut off from all communication with his family members, he had no way of knowing whether they even knew of his plight. And, as stated above, he was left to die alone.
[Note: National Nurses United is circulating a petition demanding that President Obama and Congress impose a uniform, optimal standard of care for all Ebola patients, their caregivers and the community.]
Lessons to Be Learned from This Experience
Assume for the moment that Duncan was white and that he came into the emergency room initially with an insurance card in his hand. Can anyone doubt that he would have been admitted and very likely would have received the same good treatment accorded the nurses who contracted Ebola? His nephew wrote that, “our loved one could have been saved. From his botched release from the emergency room to his delayed testing and delayed treatment and the denial of experimental drugs that have been available to every other case of Ebola treated in the United States, the hospital invited death every step of the way.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10/17/14)
The inescapable conclusion that must be drawn is that it was the convergence of pernicious racism and the broken health care system in this country, which puts profits ahead of patients, that cost Duncan his life.
But there is another factor that helps explain what happened here and why many others should be held accountable for what transpired. That has to do with the federal government’s role in cutting funding for education and research to deal with epidemics and critical diseases.
In an October 17 opinion piece by Dana Milbank, columnist for the Washington Post, titled, “The Nasty Politicalization of Ebola” (reproduced in the October 20 Cleveland Plain Dealer under the title “Absent NIH Funding Cuts, Ebola Vaccine Might Exist”), the author documents the cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2014 of 10 percent in real dollars — and vaccine research took a proportionate hit. Research on an Ebola vaccine funded at $37 million in 2010 was halved to $18 million in 2014. He notes, “With Ebola vaccines now entering clinical trials, it is not much of a stretch to conclude that vaccines would now be on the market — potentially saving thousands of lives in Africa and avoiding panic in the United States.”
Budget cuts for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have only compounded the problem.
While the US allocates some $800 billion to a trillion dollars a year for the military — taking into consideration all related and derivative expenditures — it continues to reduce funds for vitally needed social programs like health care, education, unemployment compensation, food stamps and the environment. Cutting Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid remain top priorities for right-wing forces in this country.
While the major political parties blame each other for inadequate funding for Ebola and other contagious diseases, it is only through bipartisan budget deals passed by Congress and approved by the resident that the cuts in funding were engineered. Thomas Eric Duncan is one of countless victims of the distorted priorities the government is imposing.
It’s time for long overdue fundamental changes to be implemented in the nation’s health care system that will put an end to discriminatory treatment based on ethnicity or insurance coverage. It’s high time to recognize health care as a right, not a commodity, and guarantee all residents quality and comprehensive coverage, with the parasitic insurance companies eliminated from the system. This is what a single payer system would bring about.
Finally, with the evident refusal of the two corporate parties to make needed changes, unions, joined by our progressive community partners, should run independent candidacies for political office in support of a program that would reflect the interests of the great majority. Let’s end the subservience to the political agenda of the 1% and build such a movement now!