A Travel Ban Is No Barrier to Ebola — and Borders on RacismU.S. right-wingers are fanning a hysteria that could damage the fight against the disease and discriminate against both Africans and African-Americans.
Irrational fears grip our nation while real dangers go unaddressed. Some Republican politicians have called for a U.S. flight ban in an attempt to protect Americans from the Ebola virus, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no American airline currently travels to the Ebola-stricken countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
That makes for a simple (-minded) sound bite with both the benefit of seeming like common sense and the disadvantage of making the epidemic worse. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is leading the charge and made his case in a commentary in the Texas Tribune earlier this month. The headline of Cruz’s article screams, “Ban flights from ebola-stricken nations.” After several references to “flight bans,” the senator finally explains what he actually means, and it’s not nearly as sexy. Cruz states we should ban “… non-U.S. citizens … fly[ing] commercial airliners out of West Africa, connect[ing] in Europe and arriv[ing] in the United States.” Not such a catchy slogan. What he really means is a visa ban to prevent travel from the region.
The medical community strongly rejects any idea of a travel ban because it would prevent the flow of American supplies and health professionals to the region to fight the epidemic at its source. Defeating Ebola in the countries of origin is the only way to prevent a worldwide pandemic. But such is the politics of epidemics and the politics regarding Africa. The loudest voices for a flight ban have come from Republican quarters and right-wing talk radio. I don’t doubt that the side effect of stopping some African immigrants from entering the United States is part of the appeal of this solution.
To really block travel from the afflicted region, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to gain the cooperation of an enormous network of private and national carriers still flying from the afflicted region to their home countries. This would result in the loss of the revenue that these flights bring strapped companies and countries (prices from all of West Africa have skyrocketed as available flights have diminished).
British Airlines officials have taken it upon themselves to cancel flights to the afflicted region without any request from the British government, and U.K. NGOs are complaining loudly that this decision is hurting the campaign against the epidemic by slowing travel times (aid workers must take wildly circuitous routes to get to their destinations) and raising costs to deliver their help to the suffering peoples in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, Cruz wants to ban visas to non-U.S. citizens. But it is impossible to screen visa applications from around the world given complexities involving routes and other issues. No one thinks such a strategy is desirable, let alone workable.
One of the greatest fears being fanned by the right wing is that Ebola would spread to Central America, Cuba or Haiti, from which undocumented Ebola-infected people would then bring the disease to the United States by land or a short boat ride. Actually, the best way to spread Ebola to this continent is to ban travel to the United States. That would force desperate people to find any possible route, and traveling to and then through the territories run by corrupt and weak governments of Central America would certainly top the list.
American’s longstanding ignorance about the continent of Africa contributes to this hysteria. Many Americans, even otherwise sophisticated and educated Americans, speak of Africa as a country, a singularity, without any distinctions of regions or countries. It is reported that some Mississippi parents pulled their children from a school because the principal had traveled to “Africa.” He happened to have gone to Zambia for a funeral. Zambia, in southern Africa and with zero reported cases of Ebola, is almost 3,000 miles from the West African nation of Liberia. It would be like parents in Moscow taking their children out of school for fear of a bird flu outbreak in Toronto, Canada, because a principal went to a funeral in Los Angeles, United States.
Fear of Ebola is evolving into a fear of Africans. A Liberian man near Boston was put on paid leave from work because he showed up with a cold. He had not been to Liberia, but his employer required that he not return until a doctor certified that he did not have Ebola. On Oct. 16 a black woman flying from Dallas to Chicago on American Airlines was locked in the lavatory of the plane after vomiting in the aisle. The crew asked for her travel history through the door of the restroom and kept her there for the final 45 minutes of the flight. There was no evidence of her having any contact with the Ebola victims in Dallas or any travel to Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone. But being black and exhibiting any of the known symptoms of Ebola was enough for immediate quarantine on the airplane.
The problem is that all of the early symptoms of Ebola — fever, headache, muscle ache, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy — mirror the symptoms of influenza (the common flu). The irony of the hysteria over Ebola is that the nation is in complete alarm over a disease that has killed only one person and infected only handful of others. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu kills thousands in the United States each year, yet only half of the American population bothers to get a flu shot. The CDC estimated that annual deaths from influenza range from a low of 3,349 in 1986-87 to a high of 48,614 in 2003-04. The agency also reports that as many as 90 percent of the 100 children who died last year from the flu had not been vaccinated. But one death by Ebola and the U.S. population is ready to condemn an entire continent of Africans to fight the virus in order to ensure that not one more American life is lost. This seems much more a political response than a response rooted in a health concern.
It would only compound the tragedy of those nations fighting for survival against Ebola to shut off generous and courageous Americans’ critical material and human resources because of the xenophobia and irrational fear of ignorant citizens being misled by craven politicians. Flight ban advocates are simply trying to score points against the nation’s first African-American president, implying that his misplaced compassion is putting American lives at risk.
Flu season typically runs from October to March each year. With the peak of the season just months away, the nation should be in full-blown vaccination mode. How many people of near African descent (i.e. black folks; all humans are of African descent) will be assumed to have Ebola when they really only have a cold or the flu? My fear is that this confusion will breed broad discrimination against African and African-American people in the United States this year. But those committing the discrimination will feel fully justified by their irrational fear of Ebola.
It is only a short mental leap from fear of Ebola to fear of Africans to fear of black people generally. And it won’t be long before Barack Obama will be ridiculed by his opponents as the Ebola President.
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