Treat Ebola workers as heroes, not pariahs

  • By Christopher A. Coons Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, October 31, 2014 3:33pm
  • OpinionCommentary

The best way to protect Americans from Ebola is by stopping the virus at its source.

That’s why President Obama has committed up to 4,000 U.S. military engineers, logistics specialists and public health trainers and $1 billion in funding to help eradicate the virus in West Africa. That’s why philanthropist Paul Allen pledged $100 million in support last week and why Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited the affected countries this week.

We cannot protect Americans at home without sending Americans to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Instead of demonizing those who volunteer for service, through stigmatizing mandatory quarantines or the imposition of a travel ban, we should be honoring them.

There’s a simple way to do that: The president should guarantee that all U.S. citizens who travel to West Africa to help fight Ebola will be allowed to return to the United States, that any medical care they need as a result of their trip will be provided free of charge and that wages lost to any government-imposed quarantine will be reimbursed. That’s the least we can do for the volunteers, missionaries and military personnel working to end this outbreak.

Doctors Without Borders, Samaritan’s Purse, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations deployed medical personnel to West Africa months before the virus started making headlines in the United States. These groups and their personnel should be celebrated and thanked for their service.

But some of our political leaders have been sending the opposite message. The measures imposed by officials in New York and New Jersey last weekend — although later softened — sent a dangerous, punitive message to these dedicated people. Forced quarantines and the barring of people without Ebola symptoms are tactics not backed by science. Worse, they are likely to do more long-term harm than good. Public health experts warn that such measures would deter others from serving and increase the likelihood of potentially infected people actively avoiding U.S. monitoring efforts. Without more volunteers in West Africa, the virus is likely to spread dramatically — in which case soon no level of airport restrictions would keep it from claiming American lives.

The political pressure for tougher restrictions is mounting, while the need for volunteers to fight the virus is quickly growing. President Obama should issue a guarantee now that those willing to serve will have that service honored and their right to return home protected.

U.S. Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Delaware, is chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.

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