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Momentum seems to be building on Capitol Hill for some kind of West African travel ban as an anti-Ebola measure. It sounds like a simple solution. But here’s why a travel ban is pointless—or could even make us less safe.
Zero direct flights. There are no direct flights between the US and the three affected countries. That’s right: zero. To get here from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, you have to come through another country, most likely Europe. The US could easily stop direct connections from a banned country, but it couldn’t stop those who broke their trip, or snuck across the border to a country without a ban like Ghana. And unless we seal our own borders completely, we can’t keep out the people who they met with in Europe and the people they met with.
False sense of security. That’s why travel bans don’t stop diseases. As we saw from the global swine flu pandemic of 2009, travel controls would, at best, marginally delay the arrival of a disease. It won’t stop it. This study found that “no containment was achieved” by 2009 travel controls imposed against Mexico.
Deters what’s needed most—more health workers. What’s needed now is a surge of health workers into the affected region to contain Ebola at the source. A travel ban, or even a public consideration of temporary restrictions, provides a huge deterrent to courageous workers who might be considering travelling to the region to help the fight. Fewer health workers in West Africa means a greater risk that the disease spreads further—exactly what the ban was meant to prevent.
Stokes (even more) irrational panic. Yes, Ebola is scary. But we’ve now seen Nigerian students rejected from college in Texas, Rwandan children expelled from their school in New Jersey, and a teacher who visited Dallas told she can’t go back to work at her school in Maine. At the same time, we’ve also seen both Nigeria and Senegal stopping Ebola in its tracks while none of the 48 family and original contacts of Eric Duncan have themselves been infected. Ebola is simply an extremely unlikely disease to go epidemic in the US. A travel ban would just add to the anxiety that leads to illogical responses by people against their neighbors.
Unnecessary economic harm to Africa—and to ourselves. African economies are booming right now, including Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria which are in the affected neighborhood. A travel ban would be a major disincentive to visit the region, adding unnecessarily to the economic impact on Africa and harming US investments in the region. The reason Ebola has spread as far as it has in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone is because they are some of the poorest countries
Humanity is in this together! This will not be the last cross-border deadly epidemic. The way to beat future viruses is to build surveillance and rapid reaction systems. Trying to wall off a whole region will only make the next battle even harder. We need to send doctors there to isolate victims; we don’t need travel bans here in a failed attempt to isolate ourselves.
No one should be travelling to the affected countries unless they have a good reason to do so. But a travel ban would be morally wrong, economically costly, and actually increase health risks to Americans. Let’s move on to a more constructive response.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
Developing countries are characterized by high rates of mortality and morbidity. A potential contributing factor is the low utilization of health systems, stemming from the low perceived quality of care delivered by health personnel. This factor may be especially critical during crises, when individuals choose whether to cooperate with response efforts and frontline health personnel. We experimentally examine efforts aimed at improving health worker performance in the context of the 2014–15 West African Ebola crisis.