Evading Ebola? Don’t Seal the Border

In its latest report, the United Nations health agency stated some 4,033 people have died of confirmed, suspected, or probable cases of Ebola. So far, 8,399 cases of Ebola have been reported. Most of these cases have occurred in West Africa. The outbreak began in December 2013 in Guinea and has since spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Cases have been reported in Nigeria, Senegal, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Source: The Economist

However, Ebola has made its way to the United States. Thomas E. Duncan, a Liberian man living in Dallas, came to the U.S. having contracted the virus. He later died. One of Duncan’s nurses, 26-year-old Nina Pham, has tested positive for Ebola. Now, a second nurse in Dallas has tested positive for the virus.

With the number of Ebola cases in Africa climbing, and three confirmed cases in the U.S., many are calling for the U.S. to seal its borders. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said in a recent statement that, “We’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border; we need to seal the border and secure it.”

The idea behind isolating the U.S. is straightforward. If the U.S. government prevents people from traveling to countries with serious outbreaks and bars entry to those who have been in the outbreak zone, then it can prevent the spread of the virus.

When evaluating a government policy, I tell my students to keep in mind something we learn on day one of class. Do the suggested means (policy) work to achieve the desired ends (goals)?

In the case of trying to contain Ebola, the idea of sealing the borders would not only fail to stop the spread of the virus, but would likely make the outbreak worse. One of the major problems in West Africa (as far as Ebola is concerned) is the lack of basic medical care and a dearth of trained medical personnel. Families do not know what to do when someone becomes ill and do not take the needed steps to prevent contracting the virus themselves.

When taking loved ones to the hospital, the situation may not markedly improve. Reports from the most impacted regions in Africa state that local hospitals are overwhelmed. In this recent broadcast, reporters found infected patients waiting outside the hospital, unable to get treatment. Infected patients sat inside cars with family members and even out in the open on the outside of the hospital.

Sealing off borders would only make this situation worse. It would cut off vital supplies and personnel to a region already in dire straits (not to mention it would completely devastate the economy of the region).

Still, some may argue that Africa shouldn’t be our top priority. We should be working to keep Americans safe. We need to keep Ebola away from here. Again, sealing the borders is a bad idea. Health experts and epidemiologists are in unusual agreement that sealing the borders would be a disaster. Keeping personnel from traveling to the region will allow the outbreak to grow. The longer the Ebola outbreak continues, the more likely it is to spread and jump its current geographical boundaries—creating a global pandemic.

Sealing the borders also won’t stop determined people from entering the U.S. Think about it this way. You are exposed to Ebola in country X. You know that if you stay in country X, you are likely to die. If you make it to the U.S. for treatment, however, your survival rate increases significantly. So our choice boils down to the following:

a. Stay in X and probably die

b. Get into the U.S. and probably live

I don’t know about you, but I would be pretty determined to get across the border even if it meant shooting myself out of a cannon. This leads us to a scenario where people are still entering the country with Ebola, but now we don’t know who they are, how many there are, where they are, or when they got here. It’s easy to see how this is more problematic than allowing people to enter normally where we have record of who has entered, when, and where.

Concern about Ebola is understandable. No one likes the idea of a global health crisis, and there is bound to be a variety of suggested remedies. But before we advocate any radical solution to the problem in the name of fear, we must remember to ask, “Does this policy achieve the desired goal?” In the case of sealing the borders, not only do we fail to obtain the desired outcome, but we likely make the problem worse.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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