The Tired, the Poor, the Huddled Masses: Why A Travel Ban is the Wrong Ebola Strategy

Emmett McKinney

An Ebola aid worker gives the thumbs-up. [Image Credit: Huffington Post]
The United States is no stranger to foreign threats–but we also tend to consider ourselves exempt. By 1937, for example, Adolf Hitler had started his meteoric rise to power. It seemed that war was approaching, and some Americans started to sound alarm bells. Many, however, continued to believe that the U.S. stood at a safe distance. With an ocean between the U.S. and Europe, it seemed implausible that the Third Reich could impact America.

But on October 5, 1937, President Roosevelt made a famous speech in Chicago. From a windy podium, he observed:

There is a solidarity and interdependence about the modern world, both technically and morally, which makes it impossible for any nation completely to isolate itself from economic and political upheavals in the rest of the world, especially when such upheavals appear to be spreading and not declining.

Looking back from 2014, we can see that FDR was correct, and today the United States faces a similar threat from across the pond. Instead of Europe, though, the menace has spread across Africa—and instead of war, it’s disease. West Africa’s Ebola epidemic has already claimed thousands of lives, and the virus has even made its way to the United States. Further, it continues to spread. The World Health Organization recently projected that 20,000 cases could appear by November, and the virus doesn’t seem to be slowing.

In response, some American lawmakers have called for a strategy of isolation. As of October 24, 74 Representatives and 15 Senators have expressed support for a complete ban on travel to and from the affected nations.

However, the same way the U.S. could not avoid World War II, we cannot avoid the impact of Ebola—and an outright travel ban is the wrong approach. Instead of banning all travel and slowing the flow of resources, the U.S. should encourage medical volunteers to aid in the fight against Ebola. At the same time, the U.S. should protect itself by carefully screening all incoming travelers.

To some extent, this entire debate is overblown. The American public has an irrationally large fear of Ebola spreading here. More Americans will die this year from the common flu, from gun-related accidents, and from traffic accidents than will from Ebola. Further, since the virus cannot spread through the air, Americans are at very little risk unless they come into immediate contact with Ebola victims.

Ebola is understandably frightening. However, implementing a travel ban would do little to stop the spread of the virus, since people fleeing West Africa rarely fly directly to the U.S. More often, they travel by way of Europe. In order to halt all travelers from West Africa, then, we would need to ban European travel. This option is a non-starter. Others have called for denying entry to anyone carrying a passport from an affected country—but this option, too, would fail to solve the issue.

As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest points out, a travel ban would simply push travelers underground. Instead of traveling through checkpoints, they could slip across the border undetected. These rogue travelers could ultimately increase the risk of an Ebola outbreak on American soil. Meanwhile, denying entry to anyone with a passport from Ebola-stricken nations would discourage major airlines from serving the region—thus impeding the flow of medical resources. By trying to wall itself off, the U.S. could in fact make the problem worse.

Most importantly, though, denying entry to anyone from an Ebola stricken-nation would send the wrong message to the international community. Conservative analysts have long derided Obama for being hesitant to commit US resources to Middle Eastern civil wars. Many of the same analysts now advocate for a strategy of isolation. The contrast between these two approaches would suggest to our allies that the US only cares about peace when Americans have skin in the game. To implement a travel ban, by contrast would amount to turning our back on Africa when it most needs U.S. involvement.

If the U.S. is really serious about stemming Ebola risk, we should continue to support the affected nations by sending more aid—and not hampering the flow of resources to West Africa. The federal government has already committed $175 million to containing the virus in Africa, while expressing confidence that public health professionals can bring it under control. Ebola doesn’t have to be a deadly disease if treated correctly.

So let’s resist the urge to sensationalize–and let’s keep our borders open.