Can Fortress North America keep Ebola at bay?

Two-thirds of Americans fear an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. and want to see the doors shut on visitors from West Africa, a daunting task in an age of international connections. Midterm election hype is only adding to the hysteria, Neil Macdonald writes.

Midterm elections next month are adding to the panic factor in the U.S.

Jeff Hulbert, of Annapolis, Md., protests U.S. handling of Ebola cases outside of the White House on Friday. The push for a travel ban, opposed by the White House and most disease specialists, is becoming a staple of the midterm election campaign. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

America's most important authorities on communicable diseases oppose a ban on visitors from West Africa's Ebola zone.

All such restrictions would do, they say, is nudge people to take indirect routes to the U.S. — say, through Canada — then lie to border authorities about where they came from.

They'd rather let people come, screen them and encourage them to tell the truth, the better to track and check the disease's spread.

The people in charge of America's national security apparatus agree with this assessment. So does President Obama, and just about every government in the world outside of Africa.

But then, facts are not driving this story. Fear and nativism and ignorance are, including the panicky and, frankly, understandable desire to slam the door shut and hibernate in First World safety.

Most of the American public couldn't find Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea or Nigeria on a map.

Their education about Ebola is mostly from watching disaster movies: you know, Morgan Freeman in a military uniform soberly showing the president an animated map with a red dot that expands and engulfs the whole country, or Dustin Hoffman hunting for a diseased monkey while the Pentagon considers obliterating entire towns to eradicate the plague.

To make matters worse, American voters will go to the polls in a couple of weeks to elect most of Congress, and a slew of governors, state legislators and city councils.

The governing forces in this country have difficulty acting sensibly about any subject this close to an election, let alone the prospect, however unlikely, of an African infection decimating America.

Shut the door

In Dallas, where a Liberian visitor died of Ebola and two nurses came down with the disease, a candidate for Congress is proposing a no-touch rule citywide: no hugging, no handshaking.

Schools have been closed in Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts. A U.S. cruise ship was refused entry to Mexico and forced to return to Texas after one of its passengers turned out to be the lab supervisor at the Dallas hospital that cared for the Liberian Ebola victim.

Airport staff in New York have refused to clean airplanes. Airline stocks are dropping, as investors bet a travel ban will happen.

A poll in the Washington Post suggested two-thirds of Americans favour a ban on travellers from West Africa. Roughly the same number are worried about an Ebola epidemic erupting here.

Logic, in the face of realities like those, is chaff in a tornado.

Last week, House of Representatives legislators rushed back from the campaign trail and summoned some of the country's most eminent experts on communicable diseases to testify about what's being done to protect the public.

Such hearings, you should know, are almost never about listening to experts, and there was practically no chance that this one would be either.

One politician after another advised experts from the Centers for Disease Control to please restrict any answers to a "yes" or a "no." There were speeches to be made. Republicans, in particular, want the travel door closed.

Cuba's President Raul Castro, centre, followed by Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, attend a health summit in Havana on Monday to deal with the possible spread of Ebola. Cuba is sending nearly 400 doctors to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the largest contribution by any single country. (Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

Congressman Fred Upton of Michigan declared that most African countries have imposed travel bans, and so has Jamaica, and America should follow suit.

If the government can maintain an anti-terrorist list, he declared, Ebola should be a no-brainer: "We should not be allowing these folks in, period."

Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, seeing a chance to conflate Ebola with illegal immigration, wanted to know if sealing America's southern border would help.

Out on the hustings, Republicans, and, increasingly, Democrats in close races are suggesting more or less the same thing. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, wants the government to suspend the issuance of visas in the Ebola-affected African countries.

House Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking member of Congress, has asked for a temporary travel ban.

Lost in this uproar, of course, are facts.

Have you had your flu shot?

There are 320 million people living in America, and precisely one person, Thomas Eric Duncan, a visitor from Liberia, has perished. (He actually might have survived had a hospital in Texas not sent him home when he arrived the first time at its emergency room.)

Of the four American health-care workers who've fallen ill with Ebola, two were infected in Africa and have recovered. The two nurses from that clumsy Texas hospital, both of whom contracted it from the Liberian visitor, are undergoing treatment. Their personal contacts have been traced and are being monitored, a total of about 120 people, authorities said Monday.

As frustrated health officials in the Maryland county where I live have pointed out, about 36,000 people in the U.S. died last year because of influenza, and there are no stampedes to those pharmacies offering flu shots.

But of course, everybody's had the flu; it's nasty, but familiar, and it doesn't make your organs explode and turn your bones into jelly, the way Ebola does in the movies.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Gregory Taylor leaves for west Africa today, to see the efforts to end the ebola outbreak there, and to assess what Canada can do to help the region rebuild. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

President Obama, who just a couple of weeks ago was warning Americans that the Ebola outbreak in Africa had gone exponential, and had become a threat to America's national security, is now trying to contain the fear he helped create.

"The dangers of your contracting Ebola, the dangers of a serious outbreak, are extraordinarily low," he told the country last week.

Then, within hours, the World Health Organization admitted it misjudged the Ebola outbreak in Africa and bungled its response. The hospital in Texas has acknowledged its stumbles, too. Not terribly reassuring to an anxious public.

What Americans want to hear at this point is either a reassuring speech from Morgan Freeman, or the sound of doors at the nation's international airports slamming shut.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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