Democratic senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina was emphatic earlier this week that instituting a travel ban on those attempting to enter the United States from West African nations ravaged by the Ebola virus was “not going to help solve the problem.” Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, had been one of the first candidates for office to suggest the ban…
But in a statement released Friday afternoon by her official Senate office, Hagan appears to have changed her mind.
“I have said for weeks that travel restrictions should be one part of a broad strategy to prevent Ebola from spreading in the U.S. and fighting it in Africa,” said Hagan in her statement. “I am calling on the Administration to temporarily ban the travel of non-U.S. citizens from the affected countries in West Africa. Although stopping the spread of this virus overseas will require a large, coordinated effort with the international community, a temporary travel ban is a prudent step the President can take to protect the American people, and I believe he should do so immediately.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry said at the State Capitol on Friday that flights from nations afflicted by Ebola should be banned. “Air travel is how this disease crosses borders,” he said. “I believe it is the right policy to ban air travel from countries that have been hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak.”
The statement contradicts Perry’s statements earlier this month, in which he dismissed the notion that banning such flights would help prevent Ebola from spreading in the United States.
A second lesson, which I suspect is being slowly internalized by the administration, concerns the importance of containing the disease. But the exact implications of this lesson for policy are not as clear. I agree with NR’s editors that the United States should impose a travel ban (with ample room for case-by-case exceptions) to our shores from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and should have done so weeks ago. The chief argument of opponents of such a ban, which the NR editorial didn’t really take up much, is that a ban would further undermine the economies of the stricken countries and so make it more likely that people, including people with Ebola, would flee those countries and make it more difficult to contain the disease. That’s a serious argument, and a serious worry that policymakers have to balance against the need to close off direct routes of potential transmission into our country. It’s particularly serious because containing Ebola and fighting it where it is must be the top priority of public-health officials. Allowing the disease to spread into densely populated parts of the world beyond the three nations now affected by it would ultimately be at least as dangerous to the United States as keeping passenger travel from those countries open at the moment. Conversations with a variety of public-health officials and journalists and others who have kept a close eye on this crisis have left me persuaded that the pursuit of this balance ultimately points to imposing a travel ban, and that it would be useful and important to do so now. And I think the administration will impose that ban. But it’s not a simple or easy call…
The very nature of the debate we are now having, including the debate over the travel ban, is evidence of the fact that we probably have not yet learned not to underestimate this outbreak. We are still thinking about it in terms of a crisis in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that could reach our shores by the various means that connect us to them. But the real danger, to us and to others, is probably far greater than that. Our greatest worry should not be that the disease could get to the United States from those West African nations but that it will get to Nigeria’s larger population centers or to, say, India or other places with massive population density and weak public-health systems, and from there will become an epidemic throughout the third world. The scale that this outbreak is now likely to reach in West Africa will make it rather difficult to prevent that, raising the risk of a far more colossal human catastrophe than the nightmare we are already witnessing and of a greater threat to the U.S. population.
“If you literally sequester the markets, which is to say remove all scheduled service, you really eliminate the possibility of practical access to those markets by public health officials and public health [groups] who are trying to help,” Mann said. “You would force them into the charter market, which is very expensive and in some cases also not very practical.”…
He said a 16-seater plane capable of flying from North America to Western Africa nonstop, chartered from a reputable firm, would cost around $12,000 per hour for a 16-hour round-trip flight, not including ground handling costs, plus fuel costs for the return trip. He said some charter companies might be reluctant to even offer services to an Ebola hotspot, for the same reason an airline wouldn’t care to fly there.
Experts say a travel ban would make people less likely to seek treatment or be honest about any contacts they have had with Ebola patients. And it could encourage people to leave West Africa in other ways before heading to the U.S., making them harder to track…
“If we try to eliminate travel, the possibility that some will travel over land, will come from other places and we don’t know that they’re coming in, will mean that we won’t be able to do multiple things,” such as check the temperatures of travelers arriving from countries with Ebola outbreaks, Frieden said…
Frieden said similar travel bans in other countries during the SARS outbreak a decade ago proved “unnecessary and ineffective,” pointing to an estimated $40 billion in lost economic activity due to the travel restrictions.
If the ban is to target all passengers who traveled through West Africa, “that would require a substantial amount of coordination with our friends and partners overseas,” says Vladeck. Countries already share information about air passengers with others—the question is whether the U.S. can convince other countries’ travel ministries to share enough to be able to piece together travelers’ previous stops.
And there remains the question of legality. If the ban is limited to noncitizens, its legality is fairly clear: It’s up to the U.S. to determine its own immigration policy, and it can keep foreign nationals out as it wishes, says Vladeck.
But once we’re talking about a travel ban on American citizens who may be in those areas, “the calculus changes rather dramatically, because courts have generally recognized a right on the part of U.S. citizens to travel,” he says. The question then becomes one of due process: the government would have to make sure the ban allows citizens to demonstrate that they’re not a risk to public health, for example…
A travel ban could have economic consequences beyond the obvious dip in business and share values, says Gabriel Mathy, a professor of economics at American University. “It’s more of a problem in terms of the future,” Mathy says. “If we have these kind of travel bans, it’s going to signal to Africa that they can’t really rely on openness in the West.” This kind of a signal could continue to have an adverse affect on international trade, even after a temporary ban is lifted.
STEIN: The nexus of the problem with Ebola is not in America it’s in West Africa. And until you get the situation in West Africa under control we will never be actually out of the woods with respect to Ebola. So when you look at a travel ban you have to look at it holistically. What does it mean not just for America but for West Africa? Basically every health official–maybe with a few exceptions–has said that if you do a travel ban it may, in fact, help America but it will make the situation in West Africa a whole lot more complex and a whole lot worse. People will panic —
SCARBOROUGH: — Sam —
STEIN: Hold on, let me finish. If you do a travel ban in that country people in that country will panic. There will be political panic, there will be social panic. In addition people in that country will still try to get out of that country even though there’s a travel ban. You can’t prevent them from trying to get out of the country even if do you have a travel ban. Then it becomes a question of okay, let’s say somebody with Ebola did try to get out of that country and they did go to Europe and yeah we stopped them in Europe from going to the United States. We still then have to trace who their contacts were up to that point and if you have a travel ban, if they were going underground it becomes a lot harder to trace their contacts. So yes, you might help the situation in America but the situation in West Africa is exacerbated and made worse. That’s the point.
Soldiers preparing for deployment to West Africa are given just four hours of Ebola-related training before leaving to combat the epidemic. And the first 500 soldiers to arrive have been holing up in Liberian hotels and government facilities while the military builds longer-term infrastructure on the ground…
The training process sounds daunting: One USA Today report described soldiers being told that Ebola “basically causes your body to eat itself from the inside out” and that Ebola is “worse” than what soldiers encountered in Afghanistan. Others reportedly heard that the disease is “catastrophic” and “frightening… with a high fatality rate,” though the chances of contracting it are low.
“I’ll be honest with you,” one soldier told the newspaper. “I’m kind of scared.”
Wildfires, in fact, are often fought by using controlled burns and trench digging to establish perimeters. And it’s a straw-man argument to say that a flight ban wouldn’t keep Ebola fully contained. No one says it would. But by definition, it would help slow the spread of the virus. If there had been a travel ban in place, Thomas Duncan would have likely reached the same sad fate—but without infecting two Americans and setting the virus loose in North America. And it’s difficult to follow the logic by which banning travel from infected countries would create more infections in the United States, as Frieden insists. This is not a paradox; it’s magical thinking.
Frieden’s entire argument is so strange—and so at odds with what other epidemiologists prescribe—that it can only be explained by one of two causes: catastrophic incompetence or a prior ideological commitment. The latter, in this case, might well be the larger issue of immigration.
Ebola has the potential to reshuffle American attitudes to immigration. If you agree to seal the borders to mitigate the risks from Ebola, you’re implicitly rejecting the “open borders” mindset and admitting that there are cases in which government has a duty to protect citizens from outsiders. Some people on the left admit to seeing this as the thin end of the wedge. Writing in the New Yorker, Michael Specter lamented, “Several politicians, like Governor Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, have turned the epidemic into fodder for their campaign to halt immigration.” And that sort of thing just can’t be allowed.
What would happen in the event of an Ebola outbreak in Latin America? Then America would have to worry about masses of uninfected immigrants surging across the border—not to mention carriers of the virus. And if we had decided it was okay to cut off flights from West Africa, would we decide it was okay to try to seal the Southern border too? You can see how the entire immigration project might start to come apart.
If we don’t momentarily close the door to citizens of the affected nations, it is certain that more cases will come into the U.S. It is hard to see how that helps anyone. Closing the door would be no guarantee of safety—nothing is guaranteed, and the world is porous. But it would reduce risk and likelihood, which itself is worthwhile…
Does the government think if America is made to feel safer, she will forget the needs of the Ebola nations? But Americans, more than anyone else, are the volunteers, altruists and in a few cases saints who go to the Ebola nations to help. And they were doing it long before the Western media was talking about the disease, and long before America was experiencing it…
You gather they see us as poor, panic-stricken people who want a travel ban because we’re beside ourselves with fear and loathing. Instead of practical, realistic people who are way ahead of our government.