The normally astute Nate Silver takes an unusual tack with this analysis:
Why An Ebola Flight Ban Wouldn’t Work
Duncan’s case [Dallas patient zero] has sparked calls to ban flights to the United States from the countries hardest hit by the recent Ebola outbreak — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — possibly along with others in West Africa. While some of these arguments have been measured, others seem to convey the impression there are thousands of passengers arriving in cities like Dallas each day from flights originating in these countries.
There aren’t. We searched on Kayak.com, ExpertFlyer.com and airline websites for direct flights from West African nations (as the United Nations defines the region) to destinations outside the African continent. Specifically, we looked for flights available for the week from Jan. 2 to Jan. 8, 2015, a time period far enough in advance that such flights are unlikely to have sold out.
There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — and very few from other countries in West Africa. There are far more flights from West Africa to Western Europe instead. Duncan’s case was typical. Before arriving in the United States, he connected through Brussels.
And his conclusion:
But for a ban to be even halfway effective, it would need to be much more sweeping than banning the handful of direct flights from West Africa to the United States. It seems unlikely that travel from Europe or the Middle East will be halted. But the next Ebola patient may be on a flight from London, not Liberia.
Well, yes, there are not a lot of direct flights to the US from West Africa. That is why most people are calling for a travel ban; in a world with passports, visas and networked communications it is not brain science (or virology) to track an airline passenger's country of origin, as well as any connecting flights and countries of transit.
For example, here is the National Review:
The ban should, of course, apply to a traveler’s country of origin, preventing persons from West Africa from entering the United States via other countries. Such a ban would, in theory, have prevented entry to Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, who arrived from Liberia via Belgium. Furthermore, it would have protected the two hospital workers who contracted the disease through their interactions with Duncan.
Of course. There are other argument made in opposition to a travel ban, heroically reported by Jonathan Cohn of TNR. Some are silly strawman arguments. For example, this is recycled from a Bush-era official involved with the SARS outbreak in 2003:
It’s such an appealing idea, it sounds so easy. But it’s when you get to the second layer of activity and then the third and fourth it gets complicated. For example, imagine a Liberian citizen goes to Spain and in Spain he manifests symptoms and people in Spain get it. Do you now expand the travel ban to include Spain? Somebody from Spain goes to the U.K. and now it’s there, so do you include the U.K.? Now somebody who gets it there turns out to be a U.S. citizen and wants to come home to get treated. Do you let the citizen in?
Please - SARS was more easily transmitted, and in any case, this slippery slope analysis is silly. Banning travel from a tiny country with a raging crisis and a health system in collapse is quite a different proposition from banning travel with the UK or Spain. Which is sort fo where the Bushmen came out:
Those complications alone wouldn’t have stopped the Bush Administration from imposing a ban. But officials also became convinced the ban just wouldn’t be very effective. People determined to evade travel restrictions, particularly family members, would find ways to do so. Models predicted that a ban might delay transmission to the U.S., not stop it altogether.
I am somewhat more persuaded by the concern that if you outlaw travel, only outlaws will travel. Illegally, obviously, making it very difficult to trace their travel and contacts if they eventually arrive in the US with Ebola. And God forbid sick Africans should start flying to Mexico City and working their way north to Obama's non-border, spreading disease along the way. (No, I have no idea why Mexico and our other friends south of the border wouldn't institute their own travel bans.)
That said, Cohn ducks the obvious political argument. Democrats in close races are drifting towards the Republican 'travel ban' position. If (as seems likely) the situation worsens, Obama will be announcing a ban after the election. But for another three weeks, Democrats need to rally their base by staying on-message about hate-filled, racist Republicans. Back to Cohn, who feels obliged to wave that flag:
Are these calls for closing the borders the product of political opportunism? Xenophobia? In some cases they are. But some of them represent good faith attempts to protect public health, both here and abroad. The editors of the National Review have endorsed a travel ban, for example.
Uh huh. Well, I am sure that some of the no-ban crowd is motivated by their sense of the politics. And we have the citizens of the world (like Obama) who thinks the US is equally obliged to defend Liberians and Americans.