“A virus knows no political allegiance,” said Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the M.S. program in Bioethics in an October 20, 2014 panel on HuffPost Live that addressed Ebola and proposed travel bans.
He suggested that, while outlawing transit between the U.S. and Africa may temporarily allay American fears, the epidemic that has claimed over 4,500 lives in the western area of Africa should not be an excuse to restrict the rights of travelers or to prevent additional health care workers from entering the region and helping to contain the virus.
Of the proposed travel ban, he said, “We don't want to unduly restrict rights or stigmatize people. I think it may lull us into a sense of false security in this country; if we simply block airports or block certain flights we'll be able to rid ourselves of the fear. I think we want to make sure that we don't unduly give into irrational fears.” Moreover, he said of such a ban, “There [would] be long-term implications in terms of the economy, the political situation in Africa.”
Similarly, he addressed the incorrect assumption that an Ebola czar might be the answer to this epidemic. “We need public health resources...not just putting one person there,” he said. “I think a lot of the problem is that we underfunded public health departments in this country and public health services. We need to also make sure that we have resources in place – not just a leader, not just a figurehead, not just a political decision, but also [an improvement in] our infrastructure.”
Ebola isn’t the first disease that has led to American panic – and that has been racialized in the public imagination. Dr. Klitzman said, “Historically, with epidemics, there has always been blame. The Jews were blamed for epidemics, the Hong Kong flu was blamed on people from Hong Kong, the Spanish flu was blamed on people from Spain.”
“It doesn't matter what country introduces [a virus] or where the virus starts,” he said. “A virus, once unleashed, will find niches wherever it can.”
“We need to be very careful that our fear doesn't get in our way,” he said, and offered a few prompts on how to proceed. “We need to think as calmly as we can how to deal with the situation at hand. How do we protect ourselves? How do we educate hospital staff? How do we make sure that...if someone who comes in with an emergency who may have symptoms of Ebola, we know how best to treat them?”
“We need to think from a broader perspective in terms of our public health [in order] to avert such problems in the future,” said Dr. Klitzman.
For his final statement, he offered a bit of cold comfort: “The risk of getting Ebola in the United States is much, much smaller at the moment than the risk of...getting into an airplane crash.”