The NGO community is getting mixed messages. At the same time humanitarian organizations are being encouraged to rapidly scale-up efforts to contain the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, increased political rhetoric on travel restrictions threatens to create new barriers to the NGO community's response to this crisis.
Currently, over 30 members of InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 U.S.-based NGOs, are responding to the unprecedented outbreak by providing clinical care, logistical support and community outreach as effectively as possible under the already challenging circumstances. This is part of a larger effort by the international community, drawing upon an array of public, private and nonprofit organizations. However, restricting travel from West Africa to the United States through flight bans, mandatory quarantines or visa restrictions will create unnecessary obstacles that will actually hinder this joint response.
Talk of flight bans in the media has already had an impact on volunteer recruitment efforts. Many courageous and committed relief workers have cancelled their deployment due to the lack of clarity on whether they will be allowed to go home or maintain their regular job upon their return. Mandatory quarantines would compound one or two months of heroic service in West Africa with an extra three weeks. This is extra time away from existing responsibilities that many volunteers might not be able to commit. The potential decline of aid workers willing to take on the harrowing task could have a chilling effect on efforts to contain the epidemic at its source.
Visa restrictions also would be problematic. If implemented for individuals from the three affected countries, visa restrictions would create new, bureaucratic distractions that could prevent U.S. NGOs from providing the appropriate medical treatment to their international staff hired to help treat Ebola patients. Moreover, according to researchers, visa restrictions have not worked in the past and could encourage individuals to subvert effective systems currently in place to track exposed individuals.
As we recently communicated to members of Congress and to the Obama administration, access is imperative in order to control Ebola at its source -- West Africa. The new Center for Disease Control (CDC) protocols for health workers are adhered to by all InterAction members responding to the Ebola epidemic. These protocols still allow members to provide their relief workers with the care they deserve, should they fall ill, and are sufficient to protect us here at home.
The international community has a shared responsibility across countries and governments to respond to the current Ebola outbreak in an appropriate, effective and timely manner. With effective control measures, such as community engagement and increased capacity for clinical management, the epidemic can be contained.