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Criminal Neglect: the Death of Thomas Eric Duncan

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 president 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!

To read additional comments on the key issues facing the labor movement—and to share your own comments—please visit the Labor Fightback Blog.

An Open Letter to Our Brother and Sister Trade Unionists

[Note: unions and community organizations that agree with the Open Letter below are urged to fill out the form that is provided click the “Submit” button. Thanks!]

With the lockout of federal workers finally ended and with social programs being restored, attention is now being focused on what will happen next. The divide between the major political parties continues to linger and the prospect is for more government dysfunction and paralysis, albeit with bipartisan agreement that “entitlements” must be cut.

The undersigned trade unionists and community activists strongly endorse the position taken by the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations opposing all cuts to safety net programs — especially Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. We not only call for the preservation of these programs but also for their expansion and improvement.

We reject the claim that Social Security and Medicare — our earned benefits — will run out of money within a decade or two unless major cuts to these programs are enacted now. Today the big banks and corporations are sitting on top of trillions of dollars in reserves — thanks in large part to the trillions of taxpayers’ money used to bail them out. We call for taxing those reserves and at the same time eliminating the cap on the tax paid by the very rich to fund Social Security; enacting measures to increase the taxation on the wealthiest 1%; ending corporate welfare; and closing tax loopholes. These are but a few of the many options available to raise whatever revenue may be needed to deal with the fiscal crisis, so it is crystal clear that there is absolutely no justification for cutting earned benefits received by low and middle income families. We fought for those benefits and they belong to us! The politicians have no right to take any part of them from us!

Yet that is what is on their agenda for the coming months. While the major parties may have been at each others’ throats during the past several weeks, their leaders are agreed now on one thing: stick it to the 99% and make them pay though the nose to curb the debt and deficit. And number one on their hit list is Medicare.

To be sure, Democratic Party leaders insist that they will not agree to cuts unless the Republicans agree to tax increases, which the Republicans vow they will not do. But we can’t take it for granted that the major parties won’t come up with some kind of understanding on this question. After all, in 2011 the parties did join in making cuts to safety net programs — despite major differences between them — by enacting the sequestration (which was implemented after the Supercommittee could not agree on fashioning a “grand bargain”). The Wall Street Journal has now proposed a “compromise,” whereby agreement could be reached and an impasse avoided. The paper’s October18, 2013 lead editorial states:

“The way out is to negotiate a revenue neutral reform that lowers a rate in return for closing loopholes, which will lead to faster growth that will in turn produce more revenue. Democrats can get their new revenue, but only by growing the economy. That worked for Bill Clinton in his second term after he agreed to cut the capital gains tax in 1997. By “lower[ing] a rate” the Journal is talking about cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%, something the president has said he supports. In the Journal’s view, this will pave the way for cuts in “entitlements.”

Let’s not depend upon the politicians and their schemes to safeguard our safety net programs. Let’s depend upon our own organized power and our readiness to oppose all cuts, regardless of who is pushing for them and under what guise.

Where does President Obama stand on cutting earned benefits?

So the die is cast. And Democratic Party congressional leaders can be expected to fall in line to present a united front in making cuts — especially when it comes to Medicare — with Republicans pressuring from the right for the most far-reaching cuts possible.

The question now is what is to be done? We are convinced that without massive mobilizations of the labor movement and our community allies, including an occupation of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. if necessary, a bipartisan congressional coalition could work its will under the mantra of “shared sacrifices,” and tens of millions of people could find the benefits they need to sustain themselves and their families substantially diminished. We must not permit that to happen!

To put it more succinctly, what is needed is a national mobilization to defend Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the other safety net programs, and in the process to demand that the government create a jobs program that will put millions back to work with quality and comprehensive health care.

There is no time to delay organizing a broad, united and massive fightback movement, keeping in mind that an agreement is supposed to be submitted by the bipartisan budget committee by December 13, which could very well call for cuts to earned benefits. We urge trade unionists and community activists to take this issue to your respective organizations. Pass resolutions demanding “NO CUTS!” and calling for protest demonstrations both on a local and national scale (see sample resolution below).

Please fill out the form below so that we can help publicize the extent of opposition to proposed cuts to the safety net, and our determination to do whatever is needed to protect our cherished earned benefits.

Sample Resolution

Whereas the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations have taken a strong position opposing all cuts to safety net programs — especially Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid; and

Whereas these programs must not only be preserved but also expanded and improved; and

Whereas since the U.S. government has no problem coming up with trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street, seemingly unlimited funds to pay for foreign invasions, and providing tax breaks and subsidies to corporations, it is crystal clear that more than enough money is available to sustain and expand vitally needed safety net programs; and

Whereas programs like Medicare and Social Security are earned benefits that we paid for and which belong to us, and no politician has the right to undermine or cut them; now therefore be it

Resolved that [name of union or community organization] opposes all cuts to safety net programs; and be it further

Resolved that we urge the labor movement, together with our community partners, to unite and mobilize locally and nationally including, if necessary, occupying Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. if that’s what it takes to prevent Congress from legislating cuts to these programs; and be it finally

Resolved that a copy of this resolution be sent to [list organizations and individuals your organization deems appropriate].

Form Authorizing Listing of Organization’s Name as Signer of Open Letter and/or Reporting Adoption by Organization of Resolution Opposing Cuts to Safety Net Programs







Open Letter to AFL-CIO Convention Delegates
From Concerned Trade Unionists & Labor Activists

Petition to Stop the Criminalization of the Right to Protest:
Drop Charges Against Saladin Muhammad and Moral Mondays Labor Rights Arrestees!

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