Republican Scott Brown, who has refocused his Senate campaign in New Hampshire around Ebola this month, pounced on news of a new patient in New York City and blamed “political correctness” for blocking a travel ban that experts warn would make efforts to contain the virus more difficult.
“Ebola has now spread to New York City, the largest city in the United States and less than 300 miles from New Hampshire,” Brown said in a statement Friday. “The person who brought it there passed through enhanced screening at the airport and exposed himself to countless other people by riding the subway, taking a taxi and going bowling. Still, Senator Shaheen is waffling on a travel ban. The way to stop mass infection is by swift and decisive action, including a travel ban and quarantining health workers returning from countries where Ebola is prevalent. This is not a time for political correctness; it’s a time for common-sense prevention mechanisms.”
Sounding a similar note, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said in a speech to students in New Hampshire last week that the White House is resisting travel restrictions because they “don’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt.” Travel bans have become a popular prescription among politicians, especially – but not exclusively -- Republican lawmakers and candidates.
So why hasn’t the White House capitulated? Because everyone working on the issue keeps telling them it’s a bad idea. As it turns out, there’s a huge gulf in opinion between politicians stumping for votes two weeks before a hotly contested election and health workers who have been battling the disease for months.
Medical officials, aid workers and health experts have overwhelmingly condemned calls for a travel ban, not because it will hurt anyone’s self-esteem, but because they fear it will vastly hinder their efforts to contain the virus at the source of the outbreak, which they insist is the most effective way to prevent its spread worldwide. The more restrictions put in place on travel, they argue, the harder it is to get aid in and out of the afflicted countries and to stabilize already teetering governments on the front lines.
“America and nowhere in the world is going to be safe is this spins out of control in Africa,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told msnbc this week.
The nightmare scenario described by experts doesn't involve isolated cases reaching the United States, where they’re likely to be quickly contained by America’s top-tier medical infrastructure. It’s one in which the disease continues to spread in Africa, spreads to a densely populated and less prepared country like India, and from there becomes exponentially harder to contain around the world.
As medical professionals have repeated this month, Ebola is difficult to catch without close contact with bodily fluids from a sick patient. The reason the latest victim, Dr. Craig Spencer, passed through “enhanced screening,” as Brown mentioned in his statement, is that he was no showing symptoms at the time, meaning he was highly unlikely to put anyone at risk.
That is why New York officials, while taking the latest case seriously and tracking Spencer’s contacts, are not panicking over the fact the patient rode the subway and went bowling before coming down with a fever and alerting medical authorities. The only people diagnosed with Ebola in the United States so far are three medical workers who had treated Ebola patients at their most contagious stage and one traveler who ferried a woman dying of Ebola by taxi to a clinic in Liberia. No one who took a plane or train or even slept in the same bed as them has been diagnosed.
As far as politics go, demanding a travel ban is about the easiest position a politician could possibly take this month. It sounds intuitive and, more importantly, gives them a simple way to label any subsequent bad news the result of the White House’s failure to follow their advice regardless of whether it would have made a difference. With both the Ebola story and the election heading toward a peak, the pressure on candidates to cast aside the medical world’s advice and join the travel ban chorus will only get more intense.