Even before Thomas Eric Duncan, who was being treated in Dallas for Ebola, died on Wednesday, Republicans seemed eager to pressure the Obama administration to implement a travel ban against Ebola-affected countries. Now, that wouldn't be an unreasonable suggestion if it could stop the spread of the disease. But the fact of the matter is that it will do the opposite.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who is clearly positioning himself for a possible 2016 presidential run, issued a press release noting that the ban would "seem to be an obvious step to protect public health in the United States." Donald Trump, who is threatening the country with another presidential run, tweeted that the president was being either "arrogant or stupid" in resisting it.
And then there is the master of understatement, Rush Limbaugh, who alleged that the main reason why the administration was rebuffing the ban was "political correctness" — as if America would have slammed its doors shut more speedily if the concerned country were, say, Great Britain or Belgium or Hong Kong. (The lone voice of sanity questioning this burgeoning conservative narrative is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, which in itself speaks volumes about the state of the GOP.)
The main argument of ban proponents is that without it, infected Africans will flood the United States looking for treatment. But the U.S. embassy isn't exactly handing out visas like Halloween candy in affected countries. And if it were, the solution, beyond implementing more rigorous screening of passengers (which is already happening), would be stricter medical controls for visas — not an official travel ban.
That's because such a ban would be both unnecessary and counterproductive.
Unnecessary because there is already a de facto private ban in place, given that U.S.-based airlines stopped flying to Ebola-afflicted countries two months ago (to protect their crew and passengers from exposure — and themselves from lawsuits). And counterproductive for a whole host of reasons.
For starters, the most reliable study modeling the effect of the ban concluded that even if the world managed to scale back air traffic flows by 80 percent, it would delay the international spread of the disease by only a few weeks. But the 80 percent goal is itself completely unrealistic. Why? Because it would require a far wider ban than one against Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the three countries at the epicenter of the outbreak. It would require, for example, America to ban flights from countries that themselves have not banned travel to the affected countries. Otherwise, potentially infected people could simply fly to some country where they could get a connecting flight to their final destination, just like Duncan did, flying from Monrovia to Brussels before boarding a flight to the U.S.
But even if it were possible to impose a blanket travel ban, it wouldn't be advisable, because it would undermine the world's ability to fight the spread of the disease in the source countries, ultimately leaving everyone far more vulnerable.
The vast majority of the aid and relief efforts are being organized not by government agencies with access to government planes but private volunteer organizations such as Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders that rely on commercial travel. These entities are providing crucial protective gear and expertise to handle and treat Ebola patients safely without spreading the disease. If they are not able to respond expeditiously, thanks to a travel ban, we'll be basically consigning a whole lot of people to a death sentence.
This would only heighten their sense of desperation, increasing their desire to leave, and thus producing political instability, especially if their governments try and stop them due to pressure from the international community. Many African countries have already announced their own travel bans. But it is unlikely that they'll be able to enforce them without very draconian measures in the face of a mass exodus of people, making the spread of the disease across the African continent that much harder to contain.
French novelist Jean Raspail, in his dystopian The Camp of Saints, presented liberal France with an imagined dilemma like this. When confronted with a flotilla of leperous Indians seeking to enter its shore, should the French abandon their lofty principles and shoot the infected — or stick to their ideals and court self-annihilation by allowing them in?
Fortunately, in our civilized world, humanity's survival depends not on killing fellow human beings as Raspail's fevered imagination suggested, but maintaining the delicate balance between altruistic impulses for humanitarian work and selfish desire for protection. In fact, government action that prevents people from acting on the first might also undermine the second.
Republicans would do themselves and everyone else a big favor by suspending their calls for a travel ban and sticking to their alleged opposition to heavy-handed government intervention. Contra Raspail, calling in the Leviathan to suppress the natural urge to help might undermine humanity's best coping mechanisms against the Ebola crisis.