The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberia closed its borders to contain Ebola. Can that work?

Placeholder while article actions load

Imagine Pennsylvania had an outbreak of an infectious disease and had to close most of its borders.

It wouldn’t be easy.

Slated to close, among many others: I-95, I-80, the Philadelphia International Airport, the Pittsburgh International Airport, Amtrak, Port Eriethe Tacony-Palymra Bridge and the Lumberville-Raven Rock pedestrian bridge.

Liberia’s no Pennsylvania. There are a lot fewer people, for starters. But it’s about the same size. So when Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made the rare decision to close most of her nation’s borders to contain Ebola, which has killed more than 600 people in West Africa this year, she had quite a job ahead of her.

“No doubt the Ebola virus is a national health problem,” Sirleaf said. “It attacks our way of life, with serious economic and social consequences. As such we are compelled to bring the totality of our national resolve to fight this scourge.”

Can this fight be successful? A map of the terrain makes the going look pretty rough. Writ large: Liberia’s porous borders are less like Cold War Berlin than present-day Texas.

Liberia, which borders Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, has 66,000 miles of road, only 7 percent of which are paved. It has 27 airports with unpaved runways; two with paved runways, according to the CIA World Factbook. It also borders the Atlantic Ocean — more than 350 miles of it.

Some of these ports of entry will remain open, including two airportsOfficials will be testing for Ebola at these locations, Sirleaf said.

But executing her orders, which include closing markets and schools, putting nonessential government staff on a month’s mandatory leave and establishing a mandatory disinfection holiday, won’t be easy.

“Ebola took root in Guinea roughly five months ago and spread quickly across West Africa’s porous borders to neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone,” the Wall Street Journal explained. Unfortunately, “Johnson’s moves will be difficult to enforce in a country where even many government workers haven’t accepted the existence or epidemiology of the virus as scientific fact.”

Meanwhile, Liberia’s poor infrastructure doesn’t prevent it from being a hub of human trafficking and illicit drug smuggling, according to the CIA. It also hosts tens of thousands of refugees.

As the Voice of America explained: “For many, that border is just an arbitrary line separating communities that share family ties and speak the same language.”

An arbitrary line in a time of contagion doesn’t inspire confidence.