Monday, October 20, 2014

Why Is There No Travel Ban?

A number of nations in West Africa have been, or are about to be, declared Ebola-free. One thing they all have in common is that they imposed a travel ban on the nations in the hot zone, a move which elicits the question, why won't the Obama administration do likewise?

Maybe they have a good reason, but if so they've chosen to keep it to themselves. None of the quasi-reasons they've given make any sense. The head of the Center for Disease Control, Thomas Frieden, the same man who said that you can't contract Ebola by sitting next to someone on a bus and then later advised that people who are symptomatic shouldn't use public transportation so as not to infect anyone, has been similarly incoherent on the travel ban question.

Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) summarizes the aberrant logic Mr. Friedan put on display when he appeared recently on Megyn Kelly's show The Kelly File:
Their conversation focused largely on the government’s refusal to stop travel into the United States by citizens of plague nations. “Why not put a travel ban in place,” Ms. Kelly asked, while we shore up the U.S. public-health system?

Dr. Frieden replied that we now have screening at airports, and “we’ve already recommended that all nonessential travel to these countries be stopped for Americans.” He added: “We’re always looking at ways that we can better protect Americans.” “But this is one,” Ms. Kelly responded.

Dr. Frieden implied a travel ban would be harmful: “If we do things that are going to make it harder to stop the epidemic there, it’s going to spread to other parts of—” Ms. Kelly interjected, asking how keeping citizens from the affected regions out of America would make it harder to stop Ebola in Africa.

“Because you can’t get people in and out.”

“Why can’t we have charter flights?”

“You know, charter flights don’t do the same thing commercial airliners do.”

“What do you mean? They fly in and fly out.”

Dr. Frieden replied that limiting travel between African nations would slow relief efforts. “If we isolate these countries, what’s not going to happen is disease staying there. It’s going to spread more all over Africa and we’ll be at higher risk.”

Later in the interview, Ms. Kelly noted that we still have airplanes coming into the U.S. from Liberia, with passengers expected to self-report Ebola exposure.

Dr. Frieden responded: “Ultimately the only way—and you may not like this—but the only way we will get our risk to zero here is to stop the outbreak in Africa.”

Ms. Kelly said yes, that’s why we’re sending troops. But why can’t we do that and have a travel ban?

“If it spreads more in Africa, it’s going to be more of a risk to us here. Our only goal is protecting Americans—that’s our mission. We do that by protecting people here and by stopping threats abroad. That protects Americans.”

Dr. Frieden’s logic was a bit of a heart-stopper. In fact his responses were more non-sequiturs than answers. We cannot ban people at high risk of Ebola from entering the U.S. because people in West Africa have Ebola, and we don’t want it to spread. Huh?
It's both embarrassing and disconcerting to reflect that people who think like this are ensconced in positions of power making life and death decisions for the rest of us.

Anyway, Mr. Obama himself appears to be taking the outbreak seriously enough, having taken the unprecedented step of cancelling a fund-raiser, something he didn't even do when our diplomats were being slain in Benghazi, to meet with his people to discuss developments. Presumably, part of the discussion was on the topic of how to completely flummox the American people on why he won't impose a travel ban. If he cancels a golf outing we'll know we're on the cusp of a serious Ebola calamity in this country.

I don't wish to make light of what is indeed a serious matter, but the absurdity of the administration's rationale for not imposing a travel ban forces us to draw conclusions about their reasons that are themselves bizarre. Some conspiracy mongers have alleged that Mr. Obama actually wants a crisis in this country in order to consolidate his hold on power. I think that's a little nutty.

Others have speculated that part of the reason the President hasn't issued a travel ban is because up till now he thought that all the fuss was over "a boli" and he couldn't imagine how a doughy Italian sandwich could really have precipitated a major medical threat to civilization.
I think that explanation is a little nutty, too. Anyone could have made a similar slip of the tongue, and it's churlish to fault the President for being human, although I do have to wonder how many times we'd have seen this video clip on the television news if it had featured George Bush referring to the virus as eboli?

At any rate the President could put an end to all of this foolish speculation simply by giving us a plausible, coherent reason why he still allows people into this country from places where Ebola is rampant. Until he does, the rest of us are just left to guess, even if the guesses are pretty crazy.