Military key to stopping Ebola spread

President Barack Obama is sending more than 3,000 active-duty troops to West Africa. He signed an executive order authorizing the Pentagon to call up reserves and the National Guard to help fight the Ebola virus.

At first glance, this appears to be a head-scratcher. How are men and women who carry machine guns supposed to fight a microscopic bug?

But this may be one of the smartest actions the federal government has taken. The best way to keep the story of Ebola in the United States to a single incident at a Dallas hospital is to stop the virus at its source. Czars and travel bans will be of little help if the epidemic explodes in Africa.

Troopers are not doctors, and they won’t be treating people. Their purpose is to create a health-care infrastructure in three countries that essentially have none. That’s why infections have spread so quickly.

The military’s first task is to build a 25-bed field hospital for infected health-care workers. Navy Seabees will also build 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each. Specialists are training local professionals how to handle Ebola patients and testing blood samples to confirm infections.

When this crisis began, Liberia’s only lab, housed in a collection of World War II-era buildings, could barely test 40 specimens a day. U.S. workers have upgraded that lab and added three.

Reserves would fill any gaps active-duty personnel cannot in such areas as technical engineering and communications systems, according to USA Today. Other specialists may be needed.

Sending in the troops is the humanitarian thing to do and part of our nation’s tradition. More than 4,400 people have died already. Children have been orphaned. Without U.S. involvement, it will only get worse.

But sending troops is also self-defense.

The flight ban many politicians demand would be a feel-good measure. It would make it more difficult to get medical personnel to West Africa and of limited effectiveness in keeping the virus from spreading.

Similarly, an Ebola czar may be a better communicator than the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He may be excellent at coordinating a response. But he can’t stop the virus.

The best way to keep Ebola out of the United States is to stanch it in West Africa. That won’t happen with the resources Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have. The virus has killed so many people largely because a lack of sanitation and health-care facilities has sped its transmission.

Ebola is not easily spread. It requires contact with bodily fluids of someone suffering from the disease. Stopping contact stops the virus. That can only be done with proper health facilities.

Consider the hysteria in this country after one man died and two nurses who treated him were infected. There is no epidemic in this country, yet politicians and many in the media are acting as if there was. If Ebola were actually to establish a foothold, our economy and lives would come to a standstill.

No one wants that. But a czar can’t stop it. Nor can a flight ban. The only way to prevent that is to quell the virus where it began. The U.S. military has a role to play.

Low oil prices can help repair roads
If you’re looking for good news amidst the torrent of trouble from Ebola, the Islamic State and a shaky stock market, there’s this: Oil prices are tumbling, and you can see the impact at the gas pump. From more than $100 a barrel in July, they’re now in the low $80s. The price of a gallon of regular gas has dropped more than 20 cents in the past five weeks alone.

The plunge — brought on by increased oil production, particularly in the United States, and softening demand — brings many advantages.

Money consumers don’t spend at the pump gets spent or invested elsewhere, creating a kind of economic stimulus. Meanwhile, the economies of troublesome petro states such as Russia and Iran are undermined.

There are minuses, as well. Lower prices have a way of begetting higher ones as people buy vehicles that are less fuel-efficient. They also make it harder to deal with climate change. And, as people drive more, lower prices put more stress on a highway system already in grave need of repairs and upgrades.

To deal with some of these issues, there is an obvious if unpopular answer: Raise the federal gasoline tax. And do it soon while the price of oil is so low that people would barely notice.

If the tax were hiked from its current rate of 18.4 cents a gallon to 30.3 cents, gas would still be cheaper than it was on Labor Day. The higher rate would only restore the tax to where it was in 1993 (the last time it was raised) on an inflation-adjusted basis.

It would be the most painless way to begin addressing a problem that cannot be avoided much longer. As the increasing fuel-efficiency of cars has shrunk revenue from the gas tax, the government has been unable to maintain the nation’s roads and bridges, let alone expand them to keep up with population growth.

To fill the breach, Congress has relied upon borrowing and troubling budgetary gimmicks. The last temporary fix to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent involved encouraging corporations to set less aside for employee pensions so they’d pay more in corporate taxes. It’s hard to imagine a less responsible approach to public policy.

By taking action in a lame-duck session of Congress after the Nov. 4 elections, lawmakers would shield themselves from the political cost. No member of either chamber would be up for election for at least two more years, and many are retiring.

Such an increase would only be a modest, partial fix to a series of problems. It would not provide anywhere near enough to build the roads and rails necessary to foster economic growth.

But it would tend to a few of the basics, and it would do so at a time when virtually no one would feel any pain — unless, of course, they’re in Moscow or Tehran.