New survey data from YouGov show that the public is pretty enthusiastic about quarantines and travel bans as means to prevent an Ebola outbreak:
Those following news about the virus are especially likely to want to take action. 82% of those who have been following news stories about Ebola very closely would quarantine travelers from countries with Ebola outbreaks; two in three would completely exclude travelers from those countries.
Authorities generally prefer to make recommendations and rely on people to follow them in good faith. “In the U.S. we tend to try to do a softer approach, not be too coercive, and not scare people so as to drive the epidemic underground,” says Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights. The exceptions are situations in which people are ignoring recommendations. And that’s already happened at least twice in the Ebola saga. …
In Dallas, Texas, four people who were inside the apartment when Duncan became ill are also under quarantine. But local authorities have handled it in a way that highlights the potential danger of the approach. Duncan’s partner and her family were trapped in a contaminated apartment for days, amid soiled bedsheets and clothes, before they finally could move to a clean apartment. Gostin told me this may be unconstitutional. “That’s unacceptable to subject people who are quarantined to that kind of risk to their health,” he said.
Douthat resists the suggestion – one that is gaining traction on the far right – that the Obama administration is avoiding such measures for ideological reasons:
Sure, maybe the Obama White House isn’t wild about the potential implications for immigration politics of giving ground on a quarantine or travel ban … but the potential implications of a hundred Ebola cases spread across five cities are so, so much worse that the political-ideological incentive cuts, if anything, in favor of overreacting. And what’s true of crisis politics around a specific issue like immigration is true of crisis politics writ large: Because there is nothing, nothing that would wreck Obama’s legacy and his party’s immediate fortunes alike more than a real Ebola outbreak in the United States, I have to believe that people in the White House have what they consider sound, non-ideological reasons for why a travel ban isn’t a no-brainer[.]
To J.D. Tuccille, a fear-based response to Ebola is scarier than the disease itself:
To be honest, it could all be a lot worse. In the frenzy of panic over potential bioterrorism post-9/11, many states adopted part or all of the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, written by Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of law and public health at universities including Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. Gostin argued that “Although security and liberty sometimes are harmonious, more often than not they collide.” He added, “The central inquiry, then, is not whether government should have the power to act… Rather, the proper inquiry is under what circumstances power can be exercised.”
The resulting legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union noted at the time, “doesn’t adequately protect citizens against the misuse of the tremendous powers that it would grant in an emergency.” Nobody has yet proposed dusting off that fear-fueled legislation. But with the whiff of cold sweat in the air, it’s all the more reason to fear panic more than a virus.