With Marco Rubio preparing a bill to ban nationals of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone from entering the US, and with vulnerable Dem candidates hopping on the Ebolanoia bandwagon, our political class appears to be warming more and more to an Ebola travel ban. (Ron Paul, at least, has called out such proposals as bad, politically motivated policy). So the point bears repeating that a travel ban is not as commonsensical as its supporters make it out to be. Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman look back at past epidemics in which travel bans proved unhelpful, including the AIDS crisis:
After HIV/AIDS was discovered in 1984, governments around the world imposed entry, stay and residence restrictions on people with the disease. As one 2008 study notes: “Sixty-six of the 186 countries in the world for which data are available currently have some form of restriction in place.” In the US, the ban — instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 — was only lifted when Obama came into office. But HIV/AIDS managed to spread anyway, reaching pandemic proportions by the 1990s. This 1989 review of HIV/AIDS travel restrictions found they were “ineffective, impractical, costly, harmful, and may be discriminatory.” Prevention of HIV worked better than travel restriction, the authors concluded.
And swine flu:
After the arrival of H1N1 swine flu in 2009, some countries imposed travel restrictions on flights going to and coming from Mexico, resulting in a 40 percent decrease in overall travel volume. A study looking at this event found it “only led to an average delay in the arrival of the infection in other countries (i.e. the first imported case) of less than three days.” So again, reduced travel delayed (by three days!) but didn’t stop disease spread. The authors wrote: “No containment was achieved by such restrictions and the virus was able to reach pandemic proportions in a short time.”
Another common argument against travel bans is that they would seriously harm relief efforts. Jonathan Cohn elaborates on this:
Experts, along with non-profits like Doctors Without Borders, say that they’d have a much harder time getting volunteers into the countries if those volunteers knew they could not easily return. Even with an explicit exception for aid workers, they say, the extra burden and uncertainty of having to get special clearance would dampen enthusiasm. Meanwhile, a U.S. travel ban would almost certainly cause other highly developed countries to follow, dramatically reducing the demand for flights and other transportation options to West Africa. Agencies already struggling to get supplies into the area would struggle even more.
Lots of people wonder, couldn’t the U.S. government just arrange other transportation—maybe a modern-day version of the 1948 Berlin airlift? I’ve put that question to a number of officials and experts and the answer I keep hearing is “no.” In the real world, they say, making these arrangements would be difficult and solutions would be inadequate. It’s not as if assistance is this highly organized campaign, with all the necessary aid workers and their supplies lined up at Dover Air Force base, just waiting for C-17s to take them across the Atlantic. The flow of people and wares into West Africa is a constantly changing, unpredictable blob that’s heavily dependent on freely available commercial transportation. Replacing that would take resources and time, the latter of which the region really doesn’t have.