Ebola Czar’s First Challenge: Calming the Public
Policy + Politics

Ebola Czar’s First Challenge: Calming the Public

The Obama administration’s decision Friday to name Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, as the country’s “Ebola Czar” was plainly aimed at tamping down a rising sense of panic among the public, relentlessly perpetuated by social media the news media and some conservative pundits, that efforts to control the spread of the disease are failing.

The truth, of course, is that there is currently no reason to assume an outbreak of the disease in the U.S. is imminent. The first case in the U.S., Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan who was exposed in his own country before traveling here, has resulted in two additional infections so far, and there is reason to be concerned that others may have been exposed. But strong public health infrastructure in the U.S. and sophisticated mass communications platforms make the sort of crisis now facing West Africa highly unlikely here.

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Unfortunately, the infection of two nurses who helped treat Duncan in Texas, and the revelation that a number of other health care workers who may have been exposed to him were allowed to travel freely, has shaken people’s confidence in the effectiveness of that infrastructure when it comes to Ebola.

Klain’s job, more than anything, will be to calm the public by providing detailed information about the steps federal authorities are taking – and aren’t taking – in response to the disease. And among the first things he will need to address is the issue of a travel ban on the countries most affected by the epidemic.

Members of Congress from both major parties, though primarily Republicans, have been calling loudly for a travel ban, demanding that the administration act to block all flights into and out of West Africa.

This plan has a lot of appeal on the gut level, but in practical terms, it probably won’t work, and might make things worse. Public health officials though, starting with Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Tom Frieden and  Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci have not been effective at explaining why.

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Right now, there is a large and growing segment of the population hearing multiple times a day that the administration is refusing to take what sounds like a very obvious and effective step to protect Americans from people carrying the disease.

Getting on top of this discussion should be one of Klain’s first orders of business – not because it is vital to keeping the U.S. safe, but because it is necessary to counteract the sort of fear-mongering that can turn public concern into panic.

First off, as The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson pointed out in a column today, calling for a ban on flights coming to the U.S. from the “hot zone” makes little sense because there are no such direct flights. In order to get to the U.S., passengers from West Africa have to fly to a third country.

Because there is no direct commercial air service between West Africa and the U.S. that means blocking travelers who originated there is an order of magnitude more complicated unless every country in the world blocks air service in and out of the region.

Second, imposing a broader “travel ban” would be extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. The U.S. government could revoke the visas of citizens of the affected countries and refuse to issue new ones. However, that cannot account for U.S. nationals and citizens of other countries who travel through the region and return to the U.S. after stopping in one or more unaffected countries. They could quarantine anyone arriving who holds a passport from one of the affected countries or who’s passport was stamped within a month or so from those countries.

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Third, by allowing public flights into and out of the affected countries, authorities can identify individuals who have been there, and designate them for monitoring. The alternative – say people driving over the border of one of the affected countries and hopping a flight from a neighboring, unaffected country, eliminates that possibility.

By declining to enforce a travel ban, the U.S. is not failing to protect its citizens, but rather acknowledging the reality that a plan that sounds effective in a politician’s sound bite just won’t work well in the real world.

Klain, a Harvard-trained lawyer whom legendary attorney Laurence Tribe described as one of the most brilliant students he ever taught, will have the daunting job of convincing the American public to trust the judgment of public health professionals. And in the face of media obsessed with every hint of a new case of Ebola and prominent politicians criticizing the government’s every step, he’ll need all of that brilliance to get the job done.

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