On Thursday, a fourth American, Dr. Craig Spencer, who had recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders, tested positive for Ebola in New York City. The news, the details of which are still developing, is already whipping up a panic in America's most populous city, renewing—and amplifying—calls for a ban on travel to the U.S. from countries affected by Ebola.
The travel ban has become one of the central Ebola talking points for Republicans—and even some Democrats—questioning the White House's handling of the crisis.
Prominent GOP leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, have said they'd support blocking travel from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where thousands have already been killed by the disease. The Hill, which is keeping a tally of lawmakers who have come out in support of travel restrictions, has a current count of 74 House members and 15 senators—all but 11 of them Republican.
The trouble for these lawmakers is that the travel ban talking point is at odds with their other most common talking point on the White House's handling of Ebola. Namely, that the Obama administration's newly anointed "Ebola czar" Ron Klain is not a medical expert but a political expert—a Washington insider hired to make sure all the trains are running on time. Or, more cynically, to score political points and manage perception.
The vast majority of doctors and experts, the very people Klain critics say should be in charge of the crisis, say a travel ban is unwise.
First: People, particularly desperate people, will find ways across borders whether it's legal or not. Under a travel ban, people will still try to make it to the U.S., but will duck health officials and obscure their movements, potentially allowing infected people to slip into the country unnoticed.
And second: A ban would very likely make getting aid workers and critical supplies to affected countries—and, by extension, thwarting the disease globally—more challenging.
Here's Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanding the appointment of an Ebola czar with a medical degree at one moment, and then dismissing the advice of medical experts in another: "I want a doctor telling me how to deal with this," he told Fox News this week. But earlier this month, he dismissed health experts while pitching a travel ban:"The Centers for Disease Control said that that would exacerbate the problem. I don't understand why that would be the case," Chaffetz told CNN.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., made both points in the same statement. "One would think, faced with the prospect of an epidemic, the president would task an expert in epidemiology, not an expert in political spin," he said in a press release last week. "We need to be barring visas and travel from Ebola-impacted regions."
We need, in other words, to empower medical professionals, then ignore them verily.
Even most members of the House Doctors Caucus, a group of 21 anti-Obamacare Republican lawmakers who are also physicians, has gotten onboard with with a travel ban. Sixteen of its members sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday urging him to institute a temporary travel ban.
This includes government officials with experience in handling parallel crises. Former Bush Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, for example, studied a travel ban during the avian-flu outbreak and decided against it. "I just became persuaded after studying it, and working through what you'd actually be undertaking, that you'll end up burning up a lot of resources and still get overtaken by the biological spread anyway," he told The New Republic.
Conservatives do have good ideas on the Ebola crisis. The House Doctors Caucus, for instance, suggests imposing a 21-day quarantine on Americans returning from countries affected by Ebola who have been exposed to the virus. Such a policy could have prevented Spencer from going bowling and riding on the subway before testing positive for Ebola. But their reasonable ideas are undercut by their fixation on a travel ban from these African countries.
That the idea of restricting travel polls well across both parties likely isn't lost on these politicians. Nor is the quickly approaching election.