Scientist and writer Greg Cochran unearths an interesting morsel about the post World War I influenza pandemic, which killed 50-100 million people worldwide. After the war, the Pacific island of West Samoa passed from Germany to New Zealand’s control. Administrators were aware of the global flu outbreak, but powerful plantation interests opposed any quarantine of the island as bad for business. When the flu bug arrived via crewmen from the SS Talune, which visited regularly, roughly 90 percent of the population fell ill. In the end, more than a quarter of the island’s population died.
American Samoa was nearby, 60 miles away. The climate and infrastructure were more or less identical, and the islands were culturally and socially integrated through trade and intermarriage. A U.S. Navy officer was the administrator. He too was forewarned of the flu danger, but—not receiving any instruction from Washington—took matters into his own hands and responded in the completely opposite manner. He imposed a quarantine on the island, a kind of self-blockade. He even managed to persuade American Samoa’s chiefs to send out canoes to block visits of their kinsmen from their New Zealand-run neighbor. On American Samoa, there wasn’t a single case of flu.
In this case, human choices made not a difference at the margins, but all the difference. The flu was an unprecedented danger, there was no clear scientific protocol to follow. Modern medicine was still in its infancy. But in American Samoa, a cautious attitude towards a poorly understood germ made the difference between life and death.
It is a mystery why the United States allows any travelers at all to fly from the Ebola-infected countries of West Africa into American airports. If much of our politics is a fight over the proper role of government, virtually everyone agrees that shielding the population from infectious disease should be a top priority. And yet, bizarrely, every establishment instinct in Washington is to avoid overreacting, as if some terrible harm might come were it ever demonstrated that stemming the flow of West African tourists for a short period of time was not absolutely necessary.
One might think that Ebola, like almost everything else in Washington, would become a partisan issue. Hardly. The first federal officeholder to call for moratorium on flights from West Africa was a liberal democrat, Florida congressman Allan Grayson, who did so in July. After Ebola patient Thomas Duncan arrived in Dallas from Liberia, passing through Dulles airport en route, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal made the case for banning West African flights. But these two stand almost alone. (In the past day or two, some more Republicans, perhaps sensing a new front to oppose Obama, have urged more rigorous airport screening.) But generally speaking, the establishment open-borders coalition has held firm, trumping partisan divisions, as leaders of both parties form a united front, repeating the Obama administration talking points that closing America’s airports to travelers from West Africa would do no good, or even “make matters worse.”
To be clear, there is no scientific consensus about any of this.
In Forbes, columnist Stephen Salzburg surprised himself by endorsing Jindal’s recommendation, noting there are expected to be 1.4 million West African Ebola cases by January. Salzburg writes that even the pro-flight Center for Disease Control has acknowledged that sick people are trying to board planes to the U.S.; 77 have been stopped so far. This figure is for known infected persons who have been stopped. How many managed to get through the rudimentary screenings in Freetown and other airports we don’t know. But when there are a million Ebola infections, many of them still asymptomatic, how easy will it be to screen infected travelers off the planes, he asks. It is perhaps necessary to point out that Salzburg is not a Fox news tub thumper but a top scientist, a professor of biomedical engineering and biostatistics as Johns Hopkins, with an illustrious career of research into bacteria and viruses behind him.
Another relevant voice calling for far sterner measures is Alexander Garza, who was chief medical officer of the Department of Homeland Security during Obama’s first term. Garza notes (not very reassuringly) that airport workers in West African countries have been trained to take temperatures of passengers. Who would deem this sufficient? Is it really prudent to entrust so much of American security to West African airport screeners?
Garza calls for the hiring of additional screeners at U.S. airports to essentially duplicate the African screening, and to question travelers more aggressively. He calls for a doubling of the Global Migration and Quarantine office budget (and staffing) until the disease is checked. Unstated but implicit in this argument is that travelers from West Africa ought to be quarantined until it is established they are indeed disease free. The United States did this as a matter of course with European immigrants during the 19th and early 20th century immigration wave.
But such calls for tougher measures are met with bland assurances that everything is under control, that flight bans would only worsen matters. Why? Well, it is argued that the foreign medical and aid workers Africa needs to combat Ebola’s spread use commercial flights to travel to the region. The concern for the medical workers’ travel and access is a valid one. But as the United States is flying thousands of troops to West Africa to help contain the epidemic, it would surely be possible for aid workers to fly back and forth on military planes.
In defense of the current, not very rigorous, regime, President Obama argues that “in recent months we’ve had thousands of travelers arriving from West Africa and so far only one case of Ebola.” But this was in the early stages of the epidemic, before the breakout of Ebola in West Africa’s cities. Does Obama really want thousands more West Africans flying here once Ebola cases number more than a million? The answer appears to be yes. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has pointed out that 13,000 visas for travel to America have been handed out in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—which means that so long as such travelers don’t have a fever observed by the West African screeners when boarding and can get a ticket, they’re coming to the U.S.
Some issues are complicated, but this one seems simple. So long as the epidemic is raging, why should even a single traveler come here from the Ebola-infected countries?
The deeper answer is that much of the American establishment has bought into “post-America”—the concept that the border shouldn’t mean much of anything. There is a right-wing and hawkish component to this: those feel we have the right and duty to meddle in every region of the world. ISIS is treated as primarily an American problem, as are ethnic fissures in Ukraine. The liberal side of the same paradigm is driven by guilt that the United States is richer or more successful than much of the world and hopes–by eliminating the significance of the border—to gradually erase such differences. The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed denouncing “borderism.” The piece opened by lamenting that someone born in New Mexico has better opportunities in life than someone born in Mexico. (“Not only did we take a lot of territory from Mexico, but we took the parts with all the good roads” someone once remarked, wryly.)
Few in Congress would go this far, but the belief that everyone in the world has some kind of civil right to get on a plane and fly to Dallas or Newark is pervasive. One might think a deadly virus whose capacity to spread and mutate is not yet widely understood by scientists would be sufficient grounds to constrain quite dramatically this supposed “right,” at least for a few months. But not in post-American Washington.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.