“Did you know James was in the ER last night?” my suitemate asked. That’s never something you want to hear, but it’s even worse when James shared the department with a possible Ebola patient.
Then she delivered the punch line: “I was with him until 3 a.m. and then walked him home.” I was two feet from someone who possibly had been exposed. “You should have seen all the health care workers putting on masks when the patient came in!” My stomach dropped. “Oh, and they told everyone with young children to leave without explaining why.” Not what I wanted to hear at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday.
I slept in another suite that night. Luckily, it was a false alarm. I breathed a sigh of relief the next day when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the negative test result.
But it shouldn’t have come this close. We should not have had to wait with bated breath. The United States, with its global reach and excellent health care system, should be putting itself in a position of safety. Thirty other countries have enacted travel bans, and the SADC, an African inter-governmental organization, is monitoring travelers from Ebola-affected countries for 21 days and discouraging travel to member countries.
But we’re sending our citizens into the hot zone and not taking the necessary precautions when they return. I applaud those willing to give their lives to aid those in need of medical care. They are truly selfless. But a selfless mission should not conclude with the selfish act of bringing Ebola back to the United States. Your decision to expose yourself is your decision. Do not impose that decision on innocent bystanders in the everyday walkways of our cities and airports. Do not endanger your own families or ours.
Health care officials insist that Ebola can only be transmitted through bodily fluids. This is true. But sweat and sputum are bodily fluids, easily spewed into the air or wiped onto surfaces. And with a 70 percent mortality rate. Ebola can live for several hours on a dry surface and for six days in bodily secretions. An infected man coughs on the handrail at Grand Central, and every hand that touches it afterward gets the Ebola virus.
That’s not a risk I’m willing to mess with. Not with that disease, where death is as likely as heads or tails.
What should we do about all of this? One thing’s for sure: self-isolation and self-monitoring just aren’t cutting it. The Texas patient lied on his intake forms to get back into the States, though he’d helped carry a woman dying of Ebola into her house. The nurse who treated him got on a plane to Cleveland, with the CDC’s permission. A doctor traveled all around New York City until twelve hours before coming down with Ebola. He should have known better.
At the end of the day, we’re risking ourselves through inaction. We haven’t imposed a 21-day quarantine on everyone returning from the affected countries. It’s only on health care workers, and even then the government is backing down after a few complaints. Make quarantine livable but make it mandatory — for everyone. The entire problem in West Africa is that health care workers aren’t the main ones with the disease. It’s rampant in the population, and much of the spread comes from West Africans’ skepticism about governments and health care.
Screening at five distinct airports is woefully inadequate. We already saw with patient zero how easy it is to lie about your exposure risk, or just take Tylenol and eliminate fever detection. Screening does nothing to prevent people returning with the virus and bringing it to our cities. And what good does it do the world for the greatest source of humanitarian aid, the United States, to get hit with the epidemic at home? Who, then, will be helping the world, when there is no one left unmarred?
What we need is a travel ban. Without it, people will continue traveling to West Africa and returning travelers will contaminate commercial airliners. That’s the fastest way to spread Ebola, if we’re looking for one.
We imposed a travel and immigration ban on foreigners with HIV for more than 20 years — it just ended in 2010, having ruled the skies since Ronald Reagan. So why can’t we implement a travel ban for commercial airliners to West Africa? Allow health care workers to travel with charter flights and do their part in saving the world. Even with a travel ban, these charter flights can be tracked. But with a travel ban, ordinary citizens will be free from having those health care workers’ risky choice imposed on them. One man should be able to risk his life for others; he should not be able to risk a hundred peoples’ lives, without asking them, and without them even knowing.
Raleigh Cavero is a senior in Saybrook College. She was a YTV editor for the Managing Board of 2015. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Nov. 7
A previous version of this column incorrectly referred to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as the SAFC. It also mistakenly stated that the inter-governmental organization is a federation of African states. The column also incorrectly stated that the SADC had instituted a mandatory 21-day quarantine on all travelers from West Africa. In fact, the SADC member states are monitoring travelers from Ebola-affected countries for 21 days.