Why Liberia Is Prosecuting the Man Who Brought Ebola to the U.S.

The case of Thomas Eric Duncan imperils the West African country's links to international destinations.

As health officials scramble to determine the number of people who may have had contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man currently being treated for Ebola in Dallas, Texas, Liberian officials have taken the aggressive step of announcing that they plan to prosecute Duncan. The government alleges that Duncan lied about having come into contact with someone affected by Ebola during an airport screening in Liberia.

The details of Duncan's case remain in dispute. Duncan, who became sick a few days after arriving in the United States, claims that he helped a woman to a taxi whom he thought had a pregnancy-related illness. The woman, as the AP reported, was said to have later died of the Ebola virus. Duncan passed a screening at the airport in Monrovia without showing a fever and boarded his flight to the United States.

Responding to the controversy on Thursday, Binyah Kesselly, chairman of the board of directors of the Liberia Airport Authority, declared that Duncan "will be prosecuted" when he returns home.

As West African countries battle the largest Ebola outbreak on record, the notion of pursing criminal charges against a man who claims he wasn't exposed to the virus may come off as wasteful, if not extreme. Given that thousands of people continue to move between the borders of West African countries, Liberia's intention to prosecute Duncan for traveling to the United States with Ebola—unwittingly or not—also rings a little hypocritical.

But as Jens David Ohlin of Cornell University Law School contends, the prosecution of Duncan may have less to do with what he did (or did not) do and more with the precedent his case could set.

"Liberia is probably anxious about maintaining travel connections to the United States and other countries," Ohlin told me. "And countries have probably felt comfortable keeping air connections with Liberia so long as protocols for screening passengers are in place."

He added that were Liberia to ignore this potential breach of its screening process, it would ultimately convey that "these protocols are worthless."

As for the question about whether this announcement is weighted at all by the fact that it involves the United States (and its vital economic ties), he said, "I don’t think there would be a charge here if it wasn’t the United States or some other major country."

Meanwhile, for the tens of thousands of people already exposed to Ebola, and with grim predictions placing the number of future cases as high as 1.4 million, those in affected countries could seek to emulate Duncan, regardless of his intentions.

Duncan, who is now in isolation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, is said to be in "stable but serious condition." Given that all Americans who contracted the virus and received treatment in the United States have survived, the allure of coming to America to seek treatment is obvious, especially given the alternatives.

Or as Ohlin put it: "You could imagine a future individual making that decision."