If You Live in Illinois, Do Not Panic About Ebola

Enforcing travel bans, canceling safaris, and subjecting U.S. college students to health checks all show how ridiculous the global response to the outbreak has become.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has already claimed nearly 1,900 lives and will likely claim many more in the coming months. Explanations for what has allowed the epidemic to flourish so destructively abound: Many critics, from media pundits to global health scholars and advocates, blame the governments of affected countries, particularly Liberia, which tried but failed to use soldiers and police to enforce a quarantine in one Monrovia neighborhood heavily affected by Ebola. Meanwhile, the international agency coordinating relief efforts, the World Health Organization (WHO), has been criticized for its "painfully" slow response to the disease's spread. And a great deal of denigration has been lobbed at the very people navigating the Ebola outbreak -- those trying to avoid infection. West Africans are characterized by the international media as being ignorant about contagion or incapable of disrupting dangerous "cultural practices," such as "eating animals found dead in the forest, or bush meat," according to a former WHO official writing for National Geographic.

But responses to Ebola far from the hot zone are equally deserving of scrutiny. Travel bans to and from affected countries and treatment of migrants from those countries, for instance, highlight discouraging Western perceptions of Ebola as an "African" problem from which foreigners can ably shield themselves by reducing contact with those associated with the disease. Indeed, these actions and decisions are emblematic of the stark moral shortcomings in international responses to the outbreak.

Multiple airlines have canceled flights to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three countries most heavily affected by Ebola. Likewise, shipping services to and from affected countries have been disrupted. The first airlines to cancel service were regional carriers. Major international carriers, including Emirates Airline, British Airways, Kenya Airways, and Air France, soon followed suit. (Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc of Morocco continue to provide service in the three countries.) Korean Air went so far as to discontinue flights to Nairobi, despite its distance from the outbreak's epicenter -- and the fact that Kenya has had no Ebola cases. A group of Brazilian executives canceled a trip last month to Namibia, which, like Kenya, is nowhere near the outbreak. Map-challenged tourists are also canceling their trips to Kenya and South Africa. One market research company expects that flight bookings to sub-Saharan Africa could drop as much as 50 percent over the next four months.

These travel bans and elective decisions not to take trips are in response to the outbreak's arrival in Nigeria, which happened when Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American working as a consultant for the Liberian Ministry of Finance, flew to Lagos from Liberia for a business trip, even though he was ill and had come into contact with a suspected Ebola victim. Sawyer later died in a Nigerian hospital. All of Nigeria's Ebola cases can be traced back to Sawyer. In Nigeria, according to the WHO, 21 people have been infected, seven of whom have died. Had Patrick Sawyer never been allowed to board a plane, these infections and deaths may have been averted.

But this incident of someone with Ebola getting on a plane is exceptional -- especially now that airports in affected countries are screening departing travelers. And even then, the risk of Ebola transmission during air travel is low. Contracting Ebola requires contact with bodily fluids -- blood, vomit, and feces, to name a few. The most likely way to get infected with Ebola is to care for an infected person, and this is why so many health workers and family caregivers are getting sick and dying. As President Barack Obama remarked on Tuesday, sitting next to someone on public transportation is not the likely route to getting sick. The WHO has been emphatic in repeating this and urging the lifting of travel restrictions to heavily affected countries.

At best, travel bans may only postpone the international spread of Ebola. Researchers used data on daily airline passenger traffic and information about Ebola transmission during the current outbreak to simulate the potential for the disease to spread to other countries. Based on this simulation, they estimate that cutting back flights to the affected countries does not necessarily reduce the risk of international spread, but rather, delays it by several weeks.

What travel bans do in the immediate term is seriously handicap the response to Ebola. On Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Tom Frieden, lamented that fewer flights mean medical personnel are having difficulty traveling to affected countries, a problem he experienced firsthand when his original flight to West Africa was canceled. Travel restrictions also wreak havoc on local economies: Limiting the movement of people and goods has driven food prices sky-high, fueling concerns about food shortages. In Monrovia, there has been a sharp decline in market food supplies and costs have increased rapidly. For example, the price of cassava, a staple, increased 150 percent in the first two weeks of August.

Meanwhile, in the United States, people have greatly overreacted to Ebola -- that is, they have overreacted to the disease as a threat to Americans. Consider the "precautionary plans" to deal with Ebola, conceived by some U.S. colleges and universities. For example, the University of Illinois has said it will pull aside its 30 Nigerian students "for a temperature check and private Ebola discussion." There is no report that faculty, staff, or students who are not Nigerian but who may have traveled to Nigeria -- or another affected country in West Africa -- will be similarly screened. And the University of Illinois isn't alone in this: Other colleges, such as Boston University and the University of Akron, are also subjecting West African students to special screening.

This is problematic on at least two levels: First, screening only Nigerian students is mostly theater, because it is incredibly unlikely that a Nigerian traveling to the United States would have been exposed to Ebola, let alone infected by it. Nigeria has outperformed its neighbors' Ebola response. This includes better tracing of people who have been exposed to an infected individual. What's more, there have been very few cases of Ebola reported in Nigeria: only 21 out of a population of 169 million. Second, psychology research on attitudes toward immigrants suggests that singling out Nigerian students -- or any West African students, for that matter -- will only amplify prejudicial, xenophobic reactions toward them. Screening students based solely on national origin but not subjecting all potentially exposed university community members is essentially engaging in what is known as "othering," or viewing and treating a group of people as intrinsically different. Psychology research suggests that associating a "foreign population" with disease will only promote social exclusion; it also finds that beliefs associating foreigners with disease can be passed down to the next generation. In other words, what colleges and universities are doing could have a long and troubling trail of effects, none of which will do a thing to prevent Ebola transmission.

Such responses to Ebola are only perpetuating unsubstantiated concerns about the risk of infection in places where the outbreak will likely never spread. Despite there being no transmission within U.S. borders, multiple polls find that roughly 40 percent of Americans think there will be a large outbreak in the country. This response stems from fear, particularly fear of the unknown. It doesn't help, of course, that pundits and social media influencers engage in fear-mongering rhetoric. Factual information about the incredibly low risk of Ebola in the United States has to compete against the likes of Donald Trump, with 2.6 million Twitter followers, calling for all flights from West Africa to be halted.

Instead of aggressively supporting or even partnering with those fighting the outbreak on the front lines, many governments and other international actors are acting defensively, treating Ebola as a disease they can protect themselves against by limiting their interaction with affected countries and suspecting anyone with ties to West Africa of being a possible vector. But restricting travel and subjecting university students to temperature checks suggests foreigners are ignorant about how Ebola works -- just as the media have (at times condescendingly) described so many West Africans as being.

One of the few international organizations responding in earnest to the Ebola outbreak, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has rightfully urged a redirection of efforts: "It is shortsighted of developed nations to limit their response to the potential arrival of one infected patient on their territory," the leaders of MSF-Switzerland wrote last week. "If the aim is to avoid further spread of the epidemic, we have to control transmission of the virus. And this is only possible by caring for patients in West Africa."



Putin's Nuclear Option

Would Russia's president really be willing to start World War III?

Ever the one to administer bracing doses of Geopolitics 101 to his opponents, especially those inclined to underestimate his nerve, President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that "Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words." (Indeed it is.)

Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to "surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet." This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world's seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia's growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good.

Russia has also been purportedly breaching the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits Russia (and the United States) from possessing the sort of missiles that could be used against targets in Europe. If Barack Obama entered the White House hoping to reduce atomic weapons stockpiles and make the world a safer place, it looks like he will leave it with a Russia boasting a more lethal arsenal of nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cold War.

But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West -- and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what's left of America's credibility as the world's guardian of peace.

In view of the Russian leader's recent remarks and provocative actions, the scenario Piontkovsky lays out becomes terrifyingly relevant. Worse, if the trigger events described come to pass, it becomes logical, maybe even inevitable.

Piontkovsky explains the positions of the two camps presenting Putin with advice about how to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The first, the "Peace Party," as he calls it, composed of those occupying posts in influential think tanks, including, in this case, Sergey Karaganov, the head of Moscow's Higher School of Economics, urges Putin to declare victory in Ukraine now and thereby end the conflict. Having taken note of the lengths to which Moscow will go to prevent Ukraine from slipping out of its orbit, NATO will almost certainly never invite the former Soviet republic to join its ranks, the Peace Party argues. And Russia has already won tacit acceptance from the international community of its acquisition of Crimea.

Piontkovsky dismisses out of hand the possibility of Putin pursuing this solution. If Putin chose to go this route, he would look defeated, and looming before him would be the fate of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed and forced into retirement following his failed, and nearly catastrophic, 1962 attempt to secure communism in Cuba by stationing nuclear missiles there.

The other camp putting pressure on Putin, the "War Party," however, gives the president two options. The first, writes Piontkovsky, is a "romantic and inspiring scenario: World War IV between the Orthodox Russian World, now risen from its knees, against the rotting and decadent Anglo-Saxon World." (World War III, in his view, has already happened: the Cold War.) This World War IV would be a conventional war with NATO -- and it would not go well. Given NATO's superior armed forces and Russia's comparative economic, scientific, and technological weaknesses, a conventional campaign would, Piontkovsky concludes, end with Russia's defeat.

That leaves Putin only one option: a nuclear attack. Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the "superior political will" to alter the geopolitical "status quo" and -- most importantly -- with the "greater indifference to values concerning human lives" would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be?

But what would trigger a Russian attack? According to Piontkovsky's scenario, it could be something as simple as a plebiscite: the Estonian city of Narva, overwhelmingly ethnically Russian and adjacent to Russia, deciding to hold a referendum on joining the Motherland. To help them "freely express their will" at the polls, Russia could send in a brigade of "little green men armed to the teeth," much like it did in Crimea in March. Estonia would thereupon invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter -- "an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] … shall be considered an attack against them all" -- and demand that the alliance defend it. Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on the eve of NATO's summit in Wales, this is just what Obama promised. "The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," he said.

Suddenly, the most terrifying nightmare becomes reality: NATO faces war with Russia.

How would Putin then react? Piontkovsky believes that NATO would balk at attacking Moscow over a small country remote from NATO's heartland and the hearts of its citizens. Piontkovsky imagines the course of action open to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama as he contemplates unleashing a planetary holocaust over a "damned little city no one has even heard of" while the American public cries out, "We don't want to die for fucking Narva, Mr. President!" Piontkovsky also cites a German public opinion poll asking what Berlin should do if Estonia enters an armed conflict with Russia: 70 percent would want their country to remain neutral.

Piontkovsky then tries to envision the situation in which Putin would find himself if NATO intervened to drive his little green men from Narva. Would Putin commit suicide by letting his missiles fly against the United States? No. Rather, he would respond with a limited nuclear strike against a couple of European capitals -- not London or Paris, but smaller ones, presumably in Eastern European countries that have only recently joined NATO. Warsaw, against which Russia has already conducted a drill simulating a Russian nuclear attack, first comes to mind. Or, say, Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. The point is, Putin would bet on decision-makers in Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris not retaliating with nuclear weapons against Russia if it had "only" hit a city or two most Westerners have barely heard of -- and certainly do not want to die for.

The outcome of Putin's putative gambit is that NATO effectively capitulates. The alliance's credibility as guarantor of security for its member states would be utterly destroyed, as would U.S. hegemony, which largely rests on the threat of using force. Putin would then be free to do what he wanted in Ukraine and anywhere else he perceived Russia's interests to be threatened.

It might all sound a bit far-fetched. On the surface, there are obvious reasons that Putin would not want to be the first to fire nuclear weapons at anyone, even his die-hard adversaries in NATO. It would be, to put it mildly, risky, and would irremediably besmirch his place, and Russia's, in history. The world would unite against him and could do more damage to the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on food imports and the export of hydrocarbons, than anyone now can imagine. And domestically, Russian anti-war sentiment is formidable. The Russian public has, throughout the crisis, adored Putin for standing up to the West and retaking Crimea, and it even supports Russia's arming the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Russians have shown no appetite for direct military intervention, which is one reason the Kremlin repeatedly asserts that it has no troops or materiel on Ukrainian soil.

But it's worth remembering that since 2000 Russian nuclear doctrine has foreseen the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conflict with NATO, if Russian forces were about to suffer defeat in a conventional conflict -- which shows that the Kremlin has already been betting that neither Obama nor the leaders of other nuclear powers would push the button if they could avoid it.

The Kremlin is probably right.

Photo by AFP