What level of risk to Ebola infections can Americans be expected to tolerate? "Zero" is a comforting answer, especially when an exotic disease has a cinematic impact on the collective imagination. It was in pursuit of zero that Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo this week imposed a mandatory, 21-day quarantine on all health-care workers returning to their states from West Africa. The governors say that even if there's an infinitesimal risk that a person without symptoms could pass the virus by, say, sharing a subway car, that risk is too high. Cue the applause. But as we should have learned in the fight against domestic terrorism, a government that seeks to eliminate all potential risk inevitably indulges in "security theater," and makes decisions that later look dumb.
Let's think through where a zero-risk Ebola policy leads. More than 100 health-care workers treated or had direct contact with the two Dallas nurses who contracted Ebola. To ensure public safety, shouldn't those doctors and nurses also be quarantined for three weeks? The same applies to the dozens of Bellevue Hospital staffers now treating Dr. Craig Spencer, who was infected in West Africa. In coming weeks, it's likely that the U.S. hospitals designated to treat Ebola will continue to get a slow trickle of cases; if the dedicated nurses and doctors who volunteer to care for these patients are repeatedly quarantined, they will have no lives, and will cease volunteering. The supply of available nurses and doctors will quickly be exhausted. A manageable crisis will become unmanageable. Ebola poses a real threat, but it's far down on the list of things to fear. Very high on that list: human irrationality, and politicians who pander to it.