The Obama administration doubles down on everything. It never, ever, admits an error, or that conditions have changed in ways that makes its previous choices suboptimal and therefore worth changing. Obama repeatedly doubles down on deploying combat forces to fight ISIS. He has recently doubled down on closing Gitmo. And today, the despicable head of CDC doubled down on a travel ban:
Frieden later warned, however, that imposing a ban on air travel from these nations could induce potentially infected people to come into the U.S. through other countries.
“Right now we know who’s coming in. If we try to eliminate travel, the possibility that some will travel over land, will come from other places…will mean that we won’t be able to do multiple things,” he said, explaining that temperature checks and interviews conducted at airports provide valuable safeguards to public health.
Frieden said one reason a travel ban would not work is that the borders in West Africa are “porous.”
Um, the question is how porous the US border should be. The porousness of West African boundaries doesn’t mean jack if people fleeing west Africa encounter an impermeable border bounded by the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Rio Grande, and the 49th Parallel.
And as for land travel, last time I checked there were several thousand miles of shark filled ocean between west Africa and North America. So, the options are (a) flying to a Western Hemisphere country, then traveling by land to the US, (b) stowing away on a ship or on a plane, or (c) swimming, and using really good shark repellent.
I think we can reject options (b) and (c). (Even if we can’t, the cost raising effect I discuss below works even more strongly with regards to them.)
So let’s consider (a). Those arriving at the US border from Mexico or Canada by land at a border crossing must present a passport. They can be refused entry if they come from a banned country, such as Liberia.
Of course, they can try to sneak across the border. It happens all the time, but it is sufficiently difficult that there are organized networks for smuggling people across, and these people don’t work for free. So consider a Liberian contemplating flying to Mexico, getting hooked up with a coyote (they’re not in the phone book), and paying the cost of getting across the border. Not so easy. Not impossible, but damn hard. And the coyote may not be that wild about transporting someone who could be an Ebola carrier, or may charge way above the normal rate (reasons to create FUD!). It’s one thing for a Mexican or Guatemalan to make it across the Rio Grande, it’s another thing for someone from Sierra Leone. Indeed, it might take so long that said person might perish from Ebola long before reaching the US. Or s/he can try to freelance it. Yeah, fly from Africa to Mexico City, get on a bus to Juarez, or Nuevo Laredo, and start hiking. Good luck with that.
And even this option can be constrained substantially by coordinating the travel ban with Canada and Mexico. Even if they are not predisposed to cooperate, Frieden’s very fear that a US travel ban would induce attempts to circumvent it would mean that if the US did impose the ban unilaterally, Mexico and Canada would be faced with an influx of Ebola carriers. That would no doubt concentrate their minds, and make them much more cooperative.
So even (a) is a stretch as a concern.
Frieden is right that no prophylactic will be perfect. There is always a positive probability that someone sick will get in.
But the perfect is the enemy of the good. And this categorical reasoning (“if it doesn’t work 100 percent, it’s not worth doing”) is a crock. The point is that raising the cost of reaching the US from the afflicted regions will reduce the flow of potential carriers, and thereby reduce the risk to the US. If a travel ban is in place, the cost of circumventing it isn’t infinite, but it’s damned high, and will stem the flow dramatically.
Given the exponential nature of the risk, any reduction in this flow is incredibly important. Even halving the number of infected people who come into the US reduces the expected number of US cases by far more than one-half, due to the nature of epidemics.
This last fact is what makes me particularly livid. There is huge leverage in reducing the inflow of the potentially infected. Reducing inflow by one individual reduces the number of Ebola cases by a multiple of that. This leverage means that the payoff to reducing the flow into the US is huge. And the head of CDC should damn well know that: if he doesn’t, he should lose his head. (Metaphorically. But let me think about that.)
I mentioned prophylactic a bit ago. That sparked a thought. The CDC’s logic in opposing a travel ban is that since the ban wouldn’t be perfect, it shouldn’t be implemented. By that logic, the CDC should also oppose the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. After all, condoms, by the CDC’s own admission, aren’t perfect. Sometimes the virus gets through. Since the CDC’s travel ban logic implies that if something isn’t perfect, it shouldn’t be used, obviously-obviously!-the CDC must oppose the expenditure of even a penny on condoms, right?
Well, of course, it doesn’t oppose condoms: it actively encourages their use. It calls condom distribution programs a “structural level intervention” that can materially reduce the incidence of AIDS transmission.
How about a “structural level intervention” to reduce the risk of Ebola transmission, Dr. Frieden? Or are you, and the rest of the administration, so tightly welded to your previous position, or so bound to some open borders ideology, that you cannot countenance embracing your inner Roseanne Roseannadanna and can’t even consider saying “Nevermind!”?