Why Banning Travel from Ebola Affected Countries Makes it More Likely That Ebola Spreads in the USA

Some members of the US Congress are proposing visa restrictions  for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The Republican leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, clarified that they would like a temporary suspension of visas to travelers from the Ebola-affected nations “while simultaneously permitting a robust effort by the U.S. government and global health agencies to combat this vicious disease in West Africa.”

Mr. McConnell, said a spokesman, Don Stewart, was “using shorthand” last week when he said, “It would be a good idea to discontinue flights into the United States from that part of the world.” He, too, supports a temporary suspension of visas, a position put into legislative language on Monday by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who vowed to press visa-suspension legislation when Congress returned in November.

This is dangerous and actually makes it more likely for ebola to spread further–to the USA and beyond.

At the front line of the global fight against ebola are the governments of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Fighting ebola requires a degree of cooperation and trust between the governments and their population. Patients need to be isolated, and affected populations need to work with health workers doing contact tracing. Populations need some confidence that their government is handling this crisis, or they will not consent to isolation and not cooperate with contact tracing.  Part of that confidence rests on their government’s ability to keep regular channels of commerce open; and also a perception that they are not being abandoned by their government or the world.

Imposing measures like a travel ban would strangle these already suffering economies and undermine the strength of these fragile governments — and diminish the populations’ relationship and trust in their government. Civil unrest is certainly not out of the question. That would make the outbreak much, much harder to contain, and increase the likelihood that more ebola cases are imported to the USA and elsewhere. 

As Ban Ki Moon likes to say: the best way to fight ebola is to isolate the patients, not the countries. The bulk of ebola’s victims are from these three countries, but so are the bulk of the health workers fighting ebola. These governments are being aided by NGOs and the United Nations, but they are sovereign countries that ultimately decide what happens within their borders. And, at the end of the day, they are ultimately accountable to their population.

Imposing travel restrictions like a ban on visas for nationals of these countries would hurt already suffering economies, which in turn weakens frontline governments at precisely the moment they need to be bolstered and strengthened.