Fifty-eight per cent of Americans support banning all flights to the US from countries experiencing an Ebola outbreak, according to an online survey conducted this week by NBC News. On Thursday, 26 lawmakers sent a letter to President Obama asking him to institute a similar travel ban.
There are not actually direct flights from the three hardest-hit countries to the US, Mashable notes, though according to the CDC, about 150 people enter the US from those countries every day.
“The survey was conducted a day before the first person diagnosed with Ebola inside the US died,” NBC News reported. Meanwhile, the virus is ravaging West Africa: Close to 7,200 people in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have been diagnosed with the virus; more than 3,400 have died.
So why not seal the borders of those countries — or block travellers originating there — and prevent Ebola from reaching us?
Because that simply won’t work. We live in a world where it’s perfectly normal for someone to wake up in one country and have dinner in another. Some 70% of our seafood and 30% of our produce comes from overseas. Close to 98% of the clothing we wear is shipped here on a train, truck, or boat. The idea that the United States can simply close its doors to a virus and have it disappear is ludicrous.
Not only will blocking people from entering or leaving the countries most affected by Ebola not do anything to stop the virus from spreading, it would likely make it far worse.
Blocking support to the region will undoubtedly prolong the outbreak. And the longer the outbreak rages, the more opportunities there will be for the virus to jump from West Africa. The first priority should be to focus all resources on containing the outbreak, not sealing off the area that needs the most help.
Aside from being “simple and wrong,” quick fixes like isolation will make it even harder to get help into the countries that need it, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden told reporters last week. A travel ban “would make it hard to get health workers in, because they can’t get out,” he added on Wednesday. “It would make it very difficult to respond to the outbreak.”
All isolation will do, said Frieden, is “enable the disease to spread more widely” in the most affected countries, which would in turn create “more potential for it to spread elsewhere and become more of a problem.”
More of a problem for everyone. Including us.
Making A Bad Situation Worse
One of the biggest obstacles currently facing the three countries most affected by Ebola is a lack of people power.
Clinics with inadequate staff must turn away Ebola-stricken patients, many of whom simply return home to die and infect other family members. This is the first time Ebola has broken out in West Africa, and few residents have the proper tools and training to diagnose it. Most lack access to basic medical care. “The whole country has been hit by something for which it was not ready,” Dr. Amara Jambai, director of prevention and control at Sierra Leone’s health ministry, told the New York Times.
Blocking aid from reaching the country certainly won’t help.
Affected countries need more health workers trained to organise efforts to locate, isolate, and treat all the infected patients. Then they need more people to investigate the network of people sick patients may have infected. Potential contacts must be monitored for 21 days, the total period of time someone can carry Ebola before showing symptoms.
Two Countries, Two Very Different Outcomes
In Sierra Leone, Ebola patients in many of the country’s cities linger in holding centres guarded by police, where barely-trained staff wearing little to no protective gear provide the best care they can. International aid to the area has been too little and too late.
In Nigeria, the opposite has happened: As of last week, Africa’s most populous country — and one of its major trade and transit centres — succeeded in containing the outbreak. With the help of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CDC, the World Health Organisation, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Committee for the Red Cross, the country’s top doctors executed a quick and concentrated effort to contain the virus. Nigeria is also wealthier than the three main countries affected by the virus, and unlike in those countries, its outbreak began with a single person who flew into the country in July.
The people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia need more attention, not less. They need to make sure their economies, already hollowed out by the crisis, do not grind to a complete halt. They need more support, including trained health workers; supplies like gloves, masks, and disinfectants; and money for treatment facilities.
The only way to do that is with a concerted, international effort.
The CDC advises Americans travelling to West African countries affected by Ebola to take several precautions to avoid infection, including avoiding contact with wild animals, staying out of hospitals where Ebola patients are being treated, and not touching the blood or body fluids of the infected, or the bodies of those who have died from Ebola.
West African airports, meanwhile, are routinely screening travellers, both by inquiring about their exposure to Ebola and checking for fever. The CDC is helping with those efforts. In the US, the CDC has reminded airlines that people can legally deny boarding to a passenger who is visibly ill. (Ebola patients are not contagious until they have symptoms.)
Officials have also asked workers in airports and on airlines to be on guard, and the White House announced Wednesday that they would implement additional screenings at the five US airports that receive 94% of travellers from the affected region.
The governments of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have, of course, also taken whatever steps they can to reduce the virus’ spread, including limiting mass gatherings, instituting screenings at major points of travel, quarantining communities acutely affected by Ebola, and visiting homes to search for people who’ve been infected.
In this context, completely sealing the countries’ borders would be an ill-proportioned response to a manageable level of risk — and one that would very likely make the outbreak even worse.
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