White House's defense of quarantining soldiers but not nurses offends common sense

The White House has declared a quiet war on the governors of New York and New Jersey for ignoring what administration officials snidely insist is their deference to “science” embodied in their opposition to quarantining health care workers who may have been exposed to Ebola.

The White House has heaped scorn on Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie for refusing to allow potentially symptomatic health care workers to travel on public transport, but has incurred some criticism for interning nearly a dozen American soldiers who served in West Africa in an isolation ward in Italy. Some suggest that this contradictory policy exposes the administration’s politically-motivated hypocrisy on the issue of isolating potential Ebola cases.

On Tuesday, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest tried to make the administration’s case.

“And it simply will be easier to directly and actively monitor their health if their movements are restricted to certain locations,” he added. “We’re talking about thousands of military personnel that are traveling from bases all across the globe, and in order to monitor their health, it’s simply easier to do that if their movements are restricted and they’re all co-located.”

“It would be wrong to suggest that it would make the American people safer to apply this military policy in a civilian context,” he said. “The science would not back that up. In fact, implementing this military policy in a civilian context would only have the effect of hindering our Ebola response by dissuading civilian doctors and nurses from traveling to West Africa to stop the outbreak in its tracks.”

Earnest took an insulting turn, however, when he equated involuntary internment for America’s troops to mandatory haircuts for service personnel:

“There might be some members of the military who think that the haircut that is required may not be their best, but it’s a haircut that they get every couple of weeks because it is in the best interest of their unit and it maintains unit cohesion,” he said. “There are a wide range of sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for the sake of efficiency and for the sake of uniformity and for the success of our military.”

When challenged by an AP reporter who suggested Earnest response was unsatisfactory and even a little insulting to the collective intelligence of all Americans, the press secretary backtracked:

“I’m not trying to suggest that it’s somehow unimportant. I think it is a useful illustration, though, that the kinds of sacrifices that our men and women make in uniform range from very simple, elemental things like a haircut to more serious things like a medical quarantine. But the fact of the matter is, those are the kinds of things that have an impact on their day-to-day personal convenience, but yet they make those sacrifices for the benefit of the broader military.”

Later on Tuesday, Barack Obama updated the public on the government’s efforts to halt the spread of this disease. He took only one question which was focused on the seeming inconsistencies in his administration’s policy of opposing quarantine for health care workers but embracing it for service men and women who serve in Ebola-affected regions.

“They are, first of all, not treating patients,” Obama said. “Second of all, they are not there voluntarily. It’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, their commander-in-chief.”

“They are already, by definition if they’re in the military, under more circumscribed conditions,” the president added.

The president added that health care workers who travel to Ebola-affected regions to help contain the situation are not as easily monitored as soldiers. “We don’t want to do anything that’s not based on science and best practices,” Obama concluded.


I’m not trying to be reflexively contrary, but how does it make any sense that soldiers whose movements and mission is “circumscribed” should be isolated and monitored, but voluntary health care workers, who cannot be tracked, should not be avoid being quarantined if they are suspected of displaying Ebola-like symptoms?

Moreover, if the aim is not to scare health care workers from voluntarily traveling to West Africa, what does he think an involuntary quarantine of American troops will do? Did I miss the conscription act that the president signed into law? Why wouldn’t think cavalier disregard for the interests of American troops serving at their own discretion overseas have a depressing effect on future enlistments?

The White House’s logic simply does not make any sense.

In the fight against this Ebola outbreak, the United States and the West in general are winning a number of victories. The spread of the infection appears to be slowing in West Africa, and health care workers who are treated at an early stage of Ebola infection in the United States have made remarkable recoveries.

The administration’s defensiveness on the issue of quarantine, and the partisan and inconsistent way in which it has attacked those who have embraced this precautionary measure, only saps the public of more faith in government officials to be able to contain the spread of this disease dispassionately and with a modicum of competence.