I’m leaving today. I’m writing this because I know many Americans would prefer I don’t return. The concern is understandable.
“You could bring the virus back and put our community at risk of infection. The best way to mitigate this risk is to stop flights, close our borders, and physically seal our country off from the virus.”
I want to explain why this approach won’t work, and why the only way to keep us safe is to eliminate the Ebola virus at its source. It comes down to one truth– it is impossible to “close” our borders.
Borders have been porous since people started drawing them, and today is no exception. In July, commander of U.S. SOUTHCOM Gen. John Kelly explained that despite our well-funded efforts, anyone can travel into the U.S. “so long as they can pay the fare.” Kelly made it infallibly clear that it’s not because we don’t have smart enough drones or high enough walls. Our borders stay open because the people crossing are desperate enough to find a way through.
“But Ebola is in West Africa, so why worry about people crossing the border? If we stop flights from the infected region, our problem’s solved, right?”
Sadly, it’s not that simple. We could cancel all air travel between the U.S. and West Africa, but our government cannot force other countries (like Canada or Mexico) to do the same. If someone infected with the virus happens to find himself anywhere in North or South America and feels inspired to reach the U.S., there’s little our guns or walls could do to stop him.
I say this not to incite panic, but to illustrate a point. Whether we like it or not, our world is interconnected, and a person with Ebola anywhere puts people at risk everywhere. This virus will not simply disappear if we close our eyes and leave West Africans to “deal with their own problem.” Using our limited resources to prevent Ebola from “getting in” is futile, and only draws from our efforts to end the epidemic abroad.
Suspending flights makes it harder to control the spread of the virus in two ways. First, it makes it extremely difficult to get people and supplies into West Africa, where they’re desperately needed to prevent and treat Ebola. In fact, it was one of the reasons the epidemic got so bad – the world’s fear prevented responders from doing their jobs. Second, it’s much easier to track peoples’ movements across borders if they fly. As soon as they book a ticket, we know where they came from and where they’re going. By shutting down flights we force people to travel by car or boat, an epidemiologist’s nightmare.
“Ok then go, but don’t come back until you’ve been quarantined.”
Forcing anyone who’s been to West Africa into quarantine regardless of whether they show signs of infection strongly pushes people not to volunteer. Instead of supporting responders who join the effort, it criminalizes them.
When I agreed to respond to this epidemic, I decided to take a huge risk – with my job, with my school, with my life. If Minnesota had followed New Jersey and enacted a blanket policy of forced quarantine, I wouldn’t have been able to go. My school would have kicked me out and I could have lost my job.
Instead of panicking, Minnesota’s Department of Health has set up a plan for returning health workers that safeguards our communities but doesn’t force responders into quarantine unnecessarily. This plan is based on the most up-to-date information we have about the virus. You can check out their Ebola protocol at the MN DOH’s website, under “Active Traveler Monitoring.”
I am not the first Minnesotan to travel to West Africa to help contain this epidemic, nor will I be the last. The sooner we recognize that our health and safety is predicated upon the health and safety of the rest of the world, the sooner we’ll end Ebola.