Let’s start with a bit of a disclosure: I’m not a public health expert nor am I a cartographer. But I’m a believer in facts, and obtaining those through experts, not talking heads. But back to the whole map making idea. Though you probably already know this, it seems worth stating: Africa is a continent, not a country. Are we good so far? OK. Next, Africa is a BIG continent, despite what some poorly scaled maps may lead you to believe. How big? See below.
Laura and I have travel plans to South Africa in December, and some have been incredulous we’re not canceling them out of fear of ebola. To that I say to you: Would you cancel your plans to go to London right now? Because going back to that whole “Africa is a damn big place” the distance from West Africa to South Africa is roughly the same as from London to West Africa.
Now that we’re on the same page, we’re going to dive into some complexities here. A travel ban on West Africa is great political theater, but it sure isn’t smart policy, health, political, or otherwise. Here are 5 reasons why. 1. How would you ban a flight that doesn’t exist?
For all the rage about banning flights from West Africa, there’s just one problem: Of the countries currently suffering an outbreak of ebola, none of them have direct flights to the United States. Passengers traveling from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone must first fly through Europe or the Middle East. Now, there are a few flights from West Africa to the United States, but no flights from those three countries suffering an outbreak. If you’re a nerd like me, Nate Silver has a great map to illustrate this point. So banning flights to the US from these countries is impossible since, well, said flights currently don’t exist.
Most flights from these countries connect through European airline hubs like Paris, London, and Brussels. And let me ask you a question I won’t make you answer out loud: If ebola spreads to Europe, are you going to call for a ban on flights from Europe?
2. Well ban the specific passengers then (a visa ban)
A reasonable idea, but one still fraught with complications. First, how many passengers do you think are arriving to American shores from affected countries each day? If you listen to alarmists like CNN, Fox News, and a good portion of our political leaders, you’d think the number was incredibly high. Try roughly 150 according to The Telegraph.Creating a climate of panic will only push the disease further underground, which is the last thing anyone should want. But I think it’s about even more than that: If we did a ban based on nationality, is that really who we want to be as a nation? Is it practical let alone ethical? What if instead of talking about bans that won’t achieve our desired results (ending the threat of ebola) we do something more practical: End the threat of ebola.
3. A ban hurts the effort to ultimately contain and stop ebola
As much as we focus our attention on the three cases of ebola in the United States, the bigger problem is back in those three countries in West Africa. And to combat ebola, you have to stop it where it’s raging out of control. A ban makes it harder for health care workers to get in and out of a country. Oh sure, you could contract private flights but that’s costly and not an efficient way to spend precious money fighting ebola. Aside from that, if a health care worker knows they will be banned from returning to their home country if they go to West Africa, how likely are they to want to travel there and assist in the fight against ebola? A ban makes it harder to stop ebola where we most need to stop it, and offers temporary peace of mind but nothing else.
4. Marginalizing people never works
See all of history if you have any questions on this one. A ban has the ability to do horrible damage to an already stuttering economy in what can be unstable countries and could lead to further instability. If you have civil unrest and a coup, the likelihood of stopping the disease faces setbacks and the risk for the disease to pour over borders only increases. The world needs to stop the outbreak directly in West Africa and if we don’t, it will spread, ban be damned. Address the root cause, not just the symptom.
5. How is ebola spread again?
Again, while I’m not a public health expert, I have learned one thing: Many people don’t actually know how ebola spreads. We all know it’s a dangerous disease. The mortality rate is 70%, compared to SARS in 2003 (the last time America went hysterical over a public health issue) which had a death rate of 10%. But there is one key difference we keep forgetting: Barring a mutation of the current strain of ebola, the virus we are all focused on today, according to the CDC, is spread in the following ways: Touching blood, or bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, feces, vomit or semen of a person who is sick with or died from ebola. For all the panic about ebola pushed forward by the media and a few vote hungry politicians, in reality, for most people who read this blog, ebola is quite difficult to catch. The flu on the other hand, is a much more significant threat to your life in the United States.
Ebola is a dangerous disease, no doubt about it. And again, I’m no expert, so why the hell write about it? Because I’ve been dismayed by the lack of knowledge that is out there about this issue, and the incredible ways in which people are refusing to truly do their homework and instead buying into fear mongering. But me, I’ll side with public health experts, oh, and with Shep Smith of FOX News (words I never imagined I would say) on this one: “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.” I speak up because I think more of us need to. And I hope you will too.
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