Despite the insistence of Democrats who assure the public that imposing travel restrictions on West Africa would be a disaster, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the president imposes constraints on those seeking to travel to the United States from Ebola-affected nations.
The administration has thus far opposed restrictions on travel for passengers seeking to travel to America from West Africa, but their rationale for opposing a flight ban is fluid.
The White House initially insisted that imposing prohibitions on commercial travel would hinder the West’s ability to send aid and support to the region, despite the continued existence of military and charter aircraft.
Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden insisted that a travel ban would have unforeseen consequences. He warned that imposing flight restrictions would force those in the affected region to travel to third-party countries in order to access the United States, and it was better for administrators to monitor travelers coming to America from three countries rather than 30. That is a not unreasonable concern, but there is no guarantee that a potential Ebola carrier determined to enter the United States undetected would not take that route today without any prohibitions on travel in place.
Finally, liberal observers fret that imposing travel restrictions on the nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guiana amount to a massive, open-air quarantine which would only panic the already terrified local population. Such a panic, they warn, could hasten the collapse of those nations’ already ailing governments and create more chaos. This, too, is a rational fear, but it was one that was not voiced when most private airlines in Europe imposed travel restrictions on those countries weeks ago.
The reasons to oppose restrictions on travel above seem rather flimsy, but this does not mean that imposing a limited travel ban on parts of West Africa is a perfectly sensible position to hold or that those who oppose travel restrictions are driven by ideological concerns.
Even with nearly every airline servicing the affected region restricting service, experts estimate that it is highly unlikely Britain and France will escape the Ebola crisis unaffected. “Assuming an 80 percent reduction in travel to reflect that many airlines are halting flights to affected regions, France’s risk is still 25 percent, and Britain’s is 15 percent,” Reuters reported in early October.
What’s more, the White House’s concerns about hindering access to the region may have some merit. The German-owned European airline servicing West Africa, Gambia Bird, resumed twice-weekly flights to the region today after terminating them indefinitely.
“It is vital that humanitarian aid, and the experts needed to deliver it, have reliable access to Sierra Leone in order to deal effectively with the current situation,” Gambia Bird CEO Thomas Wazinski said. “It is also extremely important that the country’s economy is given every opportunity to recover and that international businesses are able to contribute to that recovery by being able to travel to and from Freetown.”
Those are the logical arguments for and against a travel ban, but logic is becoming a secondary consideration as Ebola hysteria spreads.
Even before the second health care worker who treated “index patient” Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with the disease, 67 percent of the public favored imposing travel restrictions on West Africa. Nearly as many are concerned about a widespread Ebola epidemic in America, despite the assurances of federal authorities who contend that this is an unlikely prospect. Only 33 percent of those surveyed in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll said the U.S. was doing all it could to prevent further cases of Ebola in America. 64 percent said the government could be doing more.
Domestic politics favor a limited travel ban, and this White House is nothing if not sensitive to political pressure – particularly so with less than three weeks remaining before Americans head to the polls. What’s more, new evidence suggests that the White House has been considering a flight ban for some time.
When Frieden testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday, he was probed repeatedly over whether or not he has had conversations with the White House about a travel ban. Frieden demonstrated that he is a doctor and not a politician when he clumsily tried to avoid making policy for the president while at the same time remaining honest.
It seems clear from Frieden’s response that there have been conversations with administration officials about a travel ban.
The clearest indication yet that the president’s opposition to travel restrictions is collapsing, however, came Thursday night when the president delivered limited remarks on his government’s response to the Ebola crisis from the White House. “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily to a travel ban if that is what is going to keep the American people safe,” the president told reporters. “The trouble is all the discussion I have had so far with experts in the field is that it is less effective than the measures were are already implementing.”
Many Democrats have been vocal in their opposition to travel restrictions, but it is unclear whether they are doing so for philosophical reasons or merely to support the White House’s position. Indicating that it may be the latter, embattled Democratic incumbents facing the voters this fall are starting to break with the president on the matter.
“I think like every American I’m concerned about Ebola and the challenges it presents, and I think the administration should have acted quicker,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said during a debate this week. He said it might be appropriate to consider flight restrictions, “particularly with a nation like Liberia, where Ebola has spread so widely.”
When vulnerable Arkansas incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) was asked if he believed the White House’s response to the Ebola crisis had been sufficient, he replied with a supremely awkward and prolonged, “Ummm.”
Whether or not travel restrictions on West Africa is good policy, it is clearly good politics. And that will be what ultimately forces the president, perhaps against his better judgment, to impose them.