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The Pros And Cons Of A Travel Ban To Fight Ebola

The Ebola travel ban debate reminds us that the fatal conceit of technocracy is the assumption that dynamic systems like human society are controllable.


Jeh Johnson and The Department of Homeland Security has announced a sort-of travel ban to deal with the Ebola outbreak, or at least a policy they’d like branded as a travel ban. In reality, it’s just enhanced screening, routed through five airports:

The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that all travelers from Ebola outbreak countries in West Africa will be funneled through one of five U.S. airports with enhanced screening. Customs and Border Protection within the department began enhanced screening – checking the traveler’s temperature and asking about possible exposure to Ebola – at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on Oct. 11. Enhanced sceening for travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea was expanded Oct. 16 to Washington’s Dulles, Chicago’s O’Hare, New Jersey’s Newark and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports.

This may be a way to try to achieve something along the path toward a travel ban, which everyone’s embracing, without actually doing so. Two thirds of Americans favor a travel ban, and Democratic Senate candidates are touting the idea despite the opposition of the White House.

And about that opposition: Jonathan Last’s basic theory is that the White House’s real reason for not embracing a travel ban is that it would cut against the administration’s immigration policy rationale. If we can stop people from Africa from coming, we can stop people from Central America. Closing the border for any reason undermines their position on traffic across the southern border.

Maybe that’s the case. This White House has always been one which solidly viewed every issue – even foreign policy and public health issues – through the lens of domestic political priorities. Of course, the logistics and ramifications of the two cases have little to compare themselves. It is far more feasible to stop incoming travel from west Africa than from Central America. Because they can’t leave politics behind, they’re seeing this through a nonexistent frame of racial politics, because only racists would stop potentially infected people from traveling.

A travel ban is not a ridiculous idea, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as such. But is it really necessary or desirable?

In my view, a travel ban is of debatable merit. Nigeria and Senegal have eradicated Ebola with strategies that included shutting down travel. But there will be a domino effect if the United States takes this action: if we shut down travel, then Europe shuts them down, China shuts them down, and then you have a massive economic problem on top of the health risks. The problem is that there really is no way to enforce a 100% travel ban without enforcing a commercial ban as well – otherwise you still have human transit.

Right now, people are staying where they are. Despite how terrible things are in Liberia and Guinea in particular, we have not seen mass flight from either country. The normal organic movement of goods and people (which isn’t all that significant to begin with) mostly continues. The average Liberian knows the Americans are there. It seems like things will be okay, so they’re staying in place.

Now consider the psychology of this same average Liberian who awakes one day to the news that he’s living in a global-quarantine zone. What’s a good way to spur mass movements of people? Tell them they can’t go anywhere. People tend to get panicky when they hear that. Whoa, I’m in a global death trap! We’ve been left to die! I don’t feel taken care of any longer!

What a travel ban may do is persuade a few hundred thousand west Africans that they need to GTFO, pronto. Where do they go? Abidjan is 200 miles away. Accra is 400 miles away. Lagos is 600 miles away. If they think they’re in a giant quarantine zone, they don’t beeline for America, but they do whatever humans do when they think they’re locked in a dangerous area with a deadly plague. They move. Congratulations, now you’re in circulation.

That being said, the fears of Ebola’s spread here are different than they are in Africa. There are no epidemiological implications – we don’t live in a jungle or a tropical shantytown, after all, and we’re talking about a disease that is an unshielded strand of RNA – it is not airborne and can’t survive sunlight. Once the disease burns out, unless we import African monkeys and take up eating bushmeat and sharing cups with the dead, there’s no disease well and no animal-to-human vector (which is how this whole thing started).

On the other hand, you could make the argument that the United States, what with its speed of travel and urbanized communities, is actually more conducive to Ebola’s spread than west Africa, which is dotted with small communities that die in place. If they travel at all, they don’t get far before the disease incubates. Americans, on the other hand, can easily fly with symptoms from Dallas to Cleveland and back.

In our favor, we have sunlight, a non-tropical climate, sloppy RNA transmission, no indicium of airborne virulence, weak primary and secondary virulence, and a high burn rate in our favor. Acting against us: a government health arm with decades of dealing with this bug who have no idea how to deal with it now; a modern healthcare system with enough common sense to quarantine workers; and a bunch of people who were never taught how to use bleach. Oh, and let’s not forget the geniuses at the Food and Drug Administration.

On this point, Yuval Levin notes:

“This crucial process of learning lessons has been hampered so far by a peculiar attitude that often emerges in our politics in times of crisis and imbues our debates with the wrong approach to learning from failure. The attitude is premised on the bizarre assumption that large institutions are hyper-competent by default, so that when they fail we should seek for nefarious causes.”

We tend to believe modernity is proof against plague. But the fatal conceit of technocracy is the assumption that dynamic systems like human society are fundamentally controllable. Some people even take that to the next level of assuming that things which piggyback on these humans, like pathogens, are similarly controllable. Just roll out the next political operative – he did a heckuva job lobbying, after all.