Ebola, Flight Bans, and Politics

By Zachary Shapiro

It seems like the debate over banning flights from West African Ebola stricken countries has become instantly political, with many Conservatives calling for a flight ban. See here. One author, in response to these calls, points to the history of Liberia’s relationship with the United States as a reason that the US should not consider a flight ban. Arguments against a flight ban that are not based on public health principles provide fodder for the talking heads and individuals who want to see this as a political issue.

The real question should be how much good a flight ban would do to halt the spread of Ebola to the United States. Many public health experts, from the CDC to the WHO, do not think a ban would make us safer.

Ebola is only contagious when the patient is symptomatic, and the first symptom is almost always a fever. If a patient does not have a fever, and is asymptomatic, they are not contagious. Thus they do not provide a serious risk of infecting other people, even in the confined quarters of an airplane. This makes temperature screening especially important. This easy screening tool is already in use at airports in Ebola affected Countries. 

Practical considerations would make a flight ban extremely difficult and disruptive. A flight ban could only be effective if it was nearly universal, as there are few direct flights between the United States and the West African Countries affected by Ebola. Most flights connect in Europe, suggesting that a flight ban would probably have little to no effect on Ebola transmission. For the many Americans and Dual Citizens who travel regularly between the United States and West Africa, a ban would be very disruptive, and could interfere with citizens living in those countries from exercising their Right to Return.

While a flight ban would certainly make it much more difficult for those in West Africa to travel to the United States, it would also make it much harder for aid workers and doctors to travel to where they are needed most. A flight ban would make it more difficult to get supplies into Ebola stricken countries. This would further exacerbate the negative effects the Ebola crisis is already having on economies that were not strong to begin with. See here and here. While it would be possible to implement a system whereby doctors and public health officials could coordinate their efforts with regulatory bodies to make sure they could have access to West Africa, it seems overall that a flight ban would be far more difficult, costly, and disruptive to be practical for any small increase in public safety.

We must remember that the Ebola epidemic has been raging for some time, and with no flight ban, only one case has been confirmed in the United States. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to improve United States public health resources and monitoring, as the recent case highlights failures of US systems, rather than an error made by the FAA or an airline. See here.

Exit screening for all flights containing passengers originally embarking from West Africa, including temperature checks after leaving the plane, seems like a low cost and important addition.

Fighting Ebola will require a genuine commitment of extensive resources. In today’s world, we can’t think of any infectious diseases as being simply another country’s problem. It is our problem. As such, we cannot politicize this fight, and must call on Republicans and Democrats to unite in their commitment to do whatever is necessary to fight and stop Ebola.

We should not rule out any tool in the fight against Ebola, and, as the situation develops, restricting flights could become an important weapon in the preservation of public safety. However, for the time being, it seems like the costs would outweigh any potential gains.

I am very curious as to what you readers think of the idea of a flight ban – post in the comments below.

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