When White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the possibility of an Ebola-related travel ban to the United States on Thursday, this was how he responded.
"Now, if we were to put in place a travel ban or a visa ban, it would provide a direct incentive for individuals seeking to travel to the United States to go underground and to seek to evade this screening and to not be candid about their travel history in order to enter the country. And that means it would be much harder for us to keep tabs on these individuals and make sure that they get the screening that's needed to protect them and to protect, more importantly, the American public."
Doctors and experts have concurred and have added other reasons why such a travel ban would be unwise. Among those cited:
- A decrease in travel has already damaged fragile economies in West Africa.
- It would make it difficult for aid organizations to access these countries in a timely fashion.
- A ban could scare volunteers away from traveling to West Africa to fight Ebola if they know they won't be able to return to the United States or Europe after a trip.
- The flu will likely kill more people in the United States this year than Ebola.
- If the world doesn't stop the outbreak in Africa, it is more likely that the disease will spread, ban or not.
- There are only two airlines that service this region at the moment -- nine airlines have paused flights to the region -- and a ban could cause these remaining flights to disappear.
- The United States has already instituted temperature checks at U.S. airports where nearly all of the West Africa flights come through, decreasing the likelihood of a infected traveler entering the country while contagious.
- The State Department issued a travel advisory for West Africa this summer, saying that Americans should limit nonessential travel there.
- On top of all that, there are no direct flights between the countries currently dealing with an Ebola outbreak and the United States.
Despite all of this, trying to find a legislator who thinks a ban isn't at least worth looking at (and will say so) is getting harder and harder, while the other side of the argument is rapidly gaining momentum. The Hill is keeping a tally of which legislators have signaled support for a travel ban; so far it includes, 72 House members and 14 senators. Fourteen legislators -- all Democrats -- have come out against a ban. Ex-Rep. Ron Paul, a physician, has said that calls for a ban seem "politically motivated."
The swell of support for a ban is indeed driven by polling numbers, fear and the impending election more than by science or logic -- as are most reactions to the threat of Ebola in the United States so far.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 67 percent support travel restrictions on those traveling from West Africa. A few schools that were accepting students from Africa -- even countries far away from Liberia or Sierra Leone -- have closed after mounting complaints from parents. A few universities have canceled plans for journalists -- who were in Liberia reporting -- to visit their campuses. In situations like these, fear can outweigh even the most compelling factual arguments.
In addition, there's undoubtedly a contingent of lawmakers worried about what happens if the disease spreads in the United States and they didn't do what the public was asking for. You don't want to be on the wrong side of public opinion or history; better to be exceedingly cautious.
And although the United States has not yet banned visitors from West Africa, plenty of other countries have, giving additional ammunition to those who are advocating for stricter travel measures. Many countries in Africa -- especially those that border the affected countries -- have instituted entry restrictions. (International SOS has a complete list of travel restrictions, and the Associated Press has an in-depth look at what countries that don't have a ban are doing to prevent the spread of Ebola.) Air France and British Airways no longer offer flights to Sierra Leone or Liberia.
If the United States does announce additional travel restrictions -- and if any more people in the United States come down with the illness, the growing political cacophony might become more difficult to ignore. It's very likely we'd see a cascade of restrictions across the world, as fear ramped up internationally.
Other results -- like actually stopping people from West Africa from entering the United States -- seem less certain.