Thus far, the Ebola virus has infected three people in the United States that we know of; however, Ebola hysteria seems to have infected somewhere close to 300 million. There are reports of kids being pulled out of schools and even some school closings. People in many areas are not going to work and others are driving cars rather than taking mass transit because they fear catching Ebola from fellow passengers. There are also reports of people staying away from stores, restaurants, and other public places in order to avoid the deadly plague.
This would all be comic if there were not real consequences. People not going to work are going to lose needed paychecks. Our kids need to go to school to get an education. And the cost of the hysteria may grow enormously depending on how the government reacts.
The current fad among politicians is the idea of ban on travel for people from Liberia and other countries where the epidemic is concentrated. This policy is in the "we have to do something" category.
It is reminiscent of the soldier who reports to his commanding officer that their platoon is surrounded by enemy troops. The commanding officer thinks for a moment, then takes a big swing and decks the soldier. When the soldier asks the officer why he decked him, the officer says, "I had to do something."
Doing something stupid is not always better than doing nothing. And imposing a travel ban is high on the list of stupid things. Apart from what this would do to efforts to contain Ebola in the countries now suffering from the epidemic, there is the more basic problem that it won't work.
The travel banners may have enormous faith in the competence of government, but as a practical matter a travel ban will not keep everyone who has been Liberia out of the country. People will come through third countries and simply lie about their travel history. Passport marks will be smudged or removed.
Travel banners may have great confidence in the ability of our immigration authorities to prevent such trickery, but those of us in the real world know that many people will slip by. And, thanks to the travel banners, these people who may have been exposed to Ebola will be hiding from the health authorities because they have broken the law to get into the country. Now isn't that a great way to control the virus?
One obvious way to control Ebola would be to spend some money developing a vaccine. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, thinks that we would have had an effective vaccine by now had it not been for the cuts to the agency over the last decade.
Needless to say, many of the politicians who are now the biggest promulgators of Ebola hysteria fever were also the ones pushing the budget cuts over the last decade. No doubt they are much happier to spend large amounts of money trying to contain the disease now, and treating victims in the United States, then they would have been spending money a decade ago to develop a vaccine against a disease whose primary victims are Africans.
If we can get the victims of Ebola hysteria fever to come down for a minute, it is useful to remind them that they face an enormously greater risk of being killed in a car accident than they do from being killed by the Ebola virus. But if that sounds like too much of an abstraction, there is an even simpler point that can be made.
There have been several outbreaks of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa over the last three decades. Each of them has been successfully brought under control. This means not only that it is possible to contain the virus and keep it from infecting an ever larger group of people, but that the governments in sub-Saharan Africa were able to muster the resources to accomplish this goal. These are among the poorest countries in the world.
If Sudan, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Gabon can bring Ebola under control, surely the United States can do the same. Unfortunately, Ebola Hysteria Fever may be a bit harder to contain.