Ebola travel ban sought by US lawmakers opposed by companies

In Photo: In this October 16 file photo released by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Coast Guard Health Technician Nathan Wallenmeyer (left) and CBP Supervisor Sam Ko conduct prescreening measures on a passenger (right) who arrived from Sierra Leone at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5 in Chicago.

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SOME of the biggest companies doing business in West Africa oppose a ban on travel to the US from the countries hit hardest by Ebola, something a growing list of US lawmakers are seeking.

“The restrictions are potentially damaging to the aid effort and destructive for the economies of these countries,” said Ewa Gebala, a spokesman for ArcelorMittal. “We should be isolating Ebola, not these nations.”

The Luxembourg-based company, which mines ore in Liberia and has had an expansion project there disrupted as contractors couldn’t get personnel to the nation, met with other companies in the capital of Monrovia on Friday to discuss providing logistical help to fight the deadly virus.

“Without the support of the international community the situation for these economies, many of whom are only beginning to return to stability after decades of civil war, will be even more catastrophic,” the chief executive officers of ArcelorMittal, Newmont Mining Corp., Aureus Mining Inc. and eight other companies said in a statement last month.

A ban on US travel would undercut efforts to fight the disease and hurt any potential for economic recovery in those nations, the companies said. Ebola has been devastating to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea—three of the world’s poorest nations—where it has claimed more than 4,500 lives. Some US lawmakers have been pressing for a ban on travelers from that region since a Liberian man with the disease arrived in the US and two caregivers became infected.

Medical supplies

“I haven’t heard a reason it’s in the best interest of our country not to do it,” Tom Ridge, who served as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said of a travel ban.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the possibility of an outbreak in the US means a temporary ban on passengers from those three nations is necessary. Others have said the US should refuse visas to anyone from the three countries.

“A travel ban won’t solve the Ebola crisis, but it should be part of a broader strategy,” Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, said in a statement released on Friday. “Stopping the outbreak in West Africa is the only way to contain the virus” but “there are several common-sense steps we need to take to protect the American people.”

‘Isolating us’

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged to US lawmakers that airport officials are now ensuring that anyone who had contact with an Ebola patient can’t get on a flight out of her country, as the passenger who made it to Dallas had done, according to Riva Levinson of KRL International. The Washington-based firm represents Liberia and companies working there. “Isolating us will only contribute to the stigmatization of the country,” said Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesman for the Sierra Leone government. “Prohibiting passengers will not help the situation but rather would even make the supply of much-needed medical supplies very very difficult as well.”

Isolating the disease and not the region was highlighted by International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who wore a button with hat slogan at the IMF’s annual meeting in Washington on October 11.

President Barack Obama said on Friday that while he’s not philosophically opposed to a ban, he didn’t think it would help and could make matters worse.

‘Less effective’

“In all the discussions I’ve had thus far, with experts in the field, experts in infectious disease, is that a travel ban is less effective than the measures that we are currently instituting, that involve screening passengers who are coming from West Africa,” Obama said.

David Dausey, dean of the school of public health at Mercyhurst College, disagreed with that assessment.

“Every argument that you hear against it doesn’t hold up,” Dausey said. “We’ve got to do more now to contain this disease.”

The current airport-screening measures with non-touch thermometers and questionnaires are ineffective, at best, he said. A US travel ban should be accompanied by a surge of US military efforts, transporting health officials and foreign aid to the region.

“We are willing to use peacekeeping troops for war, but we aren’t willing to do it for Ebola,” he said. “If this were a war, we would be responding very differently.”

Porous borders

Given the porous nature of the borders in West Africa, determined travelers could slip into other nations and make their way to the US, according to Thomas Frieden, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If that happened, the passengers wouldn’t have the exit screening nor the enhanced oversight when landing in the US, Frieden testified at a congressional hearing on Friday.

“We’re able to screen on entry,” Frieden said. “We’re able to get detailed locating information. We’re able to determine the risk level.”

The ban on travelers from those nations would restrict the ability to get aid workers into those nations. It would also undercut the economic and political stability of the nations, further spreading the disease there, opponents of the ban say. “This holds the promise to turn this from a tragedy into a full-blown disaster,” said David Evans, a World Bank economist who wrote a report on the economic impact of the outbreak. “It really could have destabilizing political effects.”

Worse evil

Guinea President Alpha Conde has made a similar argument.

“We wish the panic would stop,” Conde said in an interview with Bloomberg Africa TV in Washington on October 11. “In combating Ebola, we risk creating an even worse evil, namely breaking African economies.”

The pressure to ban incoming passengers followed the revelation that two nurses who treated Thomas Eric Duncan in the US contracted Ebola. Both have been transferred from Dallas to hospitals that specialize in the treatment of infectious diseases.

Of the 275,000 international passengers that arrive at US airports every day, about 150—or less than 0.1 percent—come from at-risk nations in Africa. The new US airport checks started three days after Duncan’s death from the disease.

21 days

Even with a travel ban, it’s not hard to come up with scenarios in which a person with a disease that can remain asymptomatic for up to 21 days can find their way to the US, said James Carafano, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“No matter what procedures are put in place” individual cases, such as Duncan, may still find their way to US hospitals, Carafano said. “The No.1 task of the federal government should be working with state and local governments” so they can handle those individual cases, he said.

Ahmed Gaba in Freetown, Sierra Leone, said he is worried that a US travel ban could prevent him from seeing his mother and siblings in Philadelphia any time soon.

“My family in the US are afraid of coming” to Sierra Leone, because of the outbreak, “and if the call for a ban is approved then it will be long before we get to see each other,” Ahmed said. “I am confident that Ebola will soon end and our fears will be over.”

With assistance from Silas Gbandia in Sierra Leone and Ougna Camara in Conakry.

Mark Drajem / Bloomberg

Image Credits: AP