History Proves Travel Bans Are Based On Fear, Not Facts

19th Century illustration showing cholera epidemic. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
19th Century illustration showing cholera epidemic. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)

On October 16, more than 40 members of Congress went on record seeking a travel ban against individuals from Ebola-afflicted West Africa, despite caution from Thomas Frieden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, that a ban would hurt global efforts to fight the outbreak.

"A determined, infected traveler can evade the screening by masking the fever with ibuprofen," Republican Rep. Tim Murphy said during an opening statement at the Congressional hearing on Ebola. Recent news headlines have been equally fearful. "Ebola Is Coming," read the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. "Could Ebola Virus Become ‘Bioterrorist Threat’?" asked a Fox News headline.

“It was a very depressing experience,” said Rosemary Taylor, associate professor of sociology and community health at Tufts who specializes in cross-border health threats. “A lot of fear being expressed, as well as counterproductive calls for a travel ban.”

Travel bans don’t work. "Right now, we know who's coming in,” Friedman explained during the hearing. And as he later wrote in a Fox News op-ed, "We don't want to isolate parts of the world, or people who aren't sick, because that's going to drive patients with Ebola underground, making it infinitely more difficult to address the outbreak."

Contact tracing, or tracking down every individual who comes in direct contact with an Ebola patient, is a primary method for stopping the spread of Ebola. If entering the United States becomes an illegal act, banned individuals are more likely to try and evade authorities and tracking, making contact tracing nearly impossible.

A travel ban would also keep much-needed resources from reaching West Africa. “Any discontinuation of transport will affect humanitarian aid, doctors, nurses and human resources entering the country, the transfer of biological sampling and equipment for hospitals. All of this needs international transporting, international airlines," Daniel Menucci, a representative for the WHO Travel and Transport Task Force, told the Washington Post. “This will create more problems in helping the countries most affected.”

So why are people calling for a travel ban in the first place? Psychological factors -- like a fear of unfamiliar risks and repeated miscommunication by public health officials -- contribute to an increasingly fearful environment, but there are also sociological reasons that Ebola in particular has the world so frightened.

“Ebola is spread through contact with an infected person and their bodily fluids.” Taylor said. “The last disease where everybody talked about bodily fluids was HIV. So the mode of transmission connects Ebola in people’s minds to a very frightening disease that was heavily stigmatized.”

Frieden compared the two diseases himself in early October, according to U.S. News and World Report, “In the 30 years I’ve been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS. We have to work now so this is not the world’s next AIDS.”

There’s historical precedent for linking disease to immigrant groups. Anti-immigrant sentiment ran rampant in New York City in the late 19th century, resulting in the quarantine and stigmatization of thousands of Eastern-Europeans Jews. “Much of the justification for the immigration legislation of that time was a huge fear about cholera,” Taylor said. “It was more palatable to say, ‘We don’t want people who are going to bring in cholera.’”

When bubonic plague, attributed to rats transported on a ship from Hong Kong, hit San Francisco in the early 1900s, the city essentially boycotted Chinatown. “The reality is not really the point,” Taylor said. “The point is perceptions. There was enormous discrimination against the Chinatown community in San Francisco in that period because people thought the Chinese were responsible for an outbreak of the bubonic plague.”

More recently, in 1987, the United States instituted a travel and immigration ban against individuals who tested positive for HIV. The ban wasn’t lifted until 2010. As the New York Times reported, when President Obama announced the end of the 22-year ban, he noted that the restriction was “rooted in fear rather than fact.”

Rather than causing anti-immigrant attitudes, experts believe that disease allows individuals to express existing anti-immigrant feelings without being perceived as xenophobic. “It’s more likely to happen within a country that’s already experiencing some level of anti-immigrant sentiment,” Taylor said. “This gets layered on top of years of economic fears [and] fears about losing jobs. Suddenly you add disease into the mix and people go nuts.”

And people are certainly going nuts. In New Jersey, two schoolchildren from Rwanda (which has zero reported cases of Ebola and is 2,600 miles from the Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa) were kept home from school in response to unfounded fears from parents. According to the New York Times, a British charity worker who spent decades in West Africa, returned to northern Manchester to find that no local schools would enroll her son in classes. In Turin, Italy, delegates from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were disinvited from an international food fair. And in France, authorities quarantined a municipal health office when two sick-looking Africans were seen inside.

Ebola’s death toll now exceeds 4,500, with more than 20 people dying per day in western Sierra Leone, according to The Guardian. Despite the limited impact in the Unites States, the disease continues to wreak havoc in West Africa. “One of the major dilemmas in coping with these kinds of infectious diseases globally is that it requires an incredible amount of international cooperation,” Taylor said. “That’s very difficult to achieve."

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