Despite continuing efforts by the international community to try to stop its spread, the Ebola epidemic rages on in West Africa. It has also spread to a very limited extent outside of West Africa and into several Western nations, including Spain, Germany, Norway, and the United States. At least in the West, Ebola has largely been spread through contact between infected patients and health workers who have taken care of them. The fact that both nurses who have contracted Ebola in the U.S. from their contact with patients are now free of the virus has not meant, however, that state and federal officials in the U.S. have let down their guard.
Indeed, the opposite is true, as many Western nations have continually referred to Ebola not only as a public health concern, but also as a security threat. In September, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the Ebola epidemic as a matter of international security, after which President Obama decided to deploy American troops to West Africa to help out with containment efforts.
Despite the security-based rhetoric, it was not until recent weeks that any significant measures to attempt to stop the spread of the disease into the U.S. were taken. Last week, the governors of New Jersey and New York decided to implement a policy of mandatory quarantines for health workers returning back to the U.S. from Ebola-stricken countries. This move received a stern rebuke from both President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who argued that such a measure not only discourages American health workers from going to West Africa to help out, but is also not even backed up by science. Because of the rhetorical framing of Ebola, health workers are being stigmatized and constructed as threats to society.
The fact of the matter is, however, that although Ki-moon and Obama may be right in their assessment of the quarantines as detrimental to efforts to get the disease under control in the so-called “hot zones” of West Africa, their pushback is hypocritical. Not only were the US and UN the two actors to first frame Ebola as a strategic concern instead of a health one, but reports have also emerged that the Obama administration is actually considering the implementation of a mandatory quarantine for all military personnel returning from West Africa, the same sort of quarantine it so widely condemned at the state-level.
Of all Western countries, Australia’s response to the outbreak has been the most reactionary. Yesterday, the Pacific island nation suspended entry visas for people from Ebola-affected countries and announced that the government would also suspend all humanitarian initiatives to fight Ebola. Given the fact that the Australian Medical Association has deemed the chances that migrants from West Africa could bring Ebola to Australia as minimal, the reaction by Australia seems overblown, and motivated almost purely by political motives.
Transforming Ebola from a health concern into a security one—a dire one at that—only serves to create fear and drive paranoia. Moreover, this transformation is self-reinforcing, as rash responses only serve to prove the security rhetoric right when they hurt efforts to actually combat the disease in areas most affected by it. In particular, the recent step taken by Australia to suspend its Ebola fighting efforts in West Africa will only cause the epidemic to expand. In combination with the fact that health care workers are already nervous about traveling to affected regions to assist with treatment and prevention efforts due to the possibility that they themselves might contract the disease—according to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim—adding on a quarantine requirement for non-symptomatic workers upon their return only further dissuades them from helping out. All in all, the framing of Ebola as a dire security threat is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that is costing the lives of numerous people on the ground in Ebola hot zones in exchange for political points on the home front.