Ebola Threat: Manageable or Magnified

Dr. Peter Piot, one of the co-discoverers of the Ebola virus, sounded an alarm back in July warning that a “mega crisis” could occur unless response was comprehensive and swift enough. He was initially criticized for his strong reaction but said he “would rather be accused of overreacting.” He recently reaffirmed his warning, saying he was “on target.”

Now that Ebola is in Europe, I have to wonder how long it will be before politicians want to close the southern border if the virus shows up in the Americas. The Weekly Standard, Department of Defense News reported on Wednesday, “Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, fears that the self-evident ability of the American medical system to successfully cope with Ebola will lead millions of Central American residents to make refugees of themselves and head toward the United States.” Granted, we were caught flatfooted and about three months too late on preventing Ebola from arriving in the United States, but now that it is here and if it arrives in Mexico, then is it not the time to turn to our neighbors, instead of on our neighbors?

Lesson One: React and Respond ASAP to Recover Completely

With all the hysteria about ISIS coming across the southern border into the U.S. and the upped concern about a doubling contraction time of less than three weeks for Ebola in West Africa, perspective for if and when it shows up in Mexico is warranted. During the Influenza scare in Mexico, I remember flying freely from the U.S. to Canada and from the U.S to Mexico. Public safety officials’ concern was not so much who was coming into Mexico infected with influenza—as it had already arrived but rather who might have it and might spread it if they were to leave Mexico.  All passengers were screened by an automated mass thermometer as we approached our gates.  Those of us (and I was one) who had an elevated temperature (a possible early warning of infection) were asked by the technician to undergo a more thorough examination by a nurse and some of us (not me that time) were sent to a doctor.  Indeed, some of us missed our flights and some were detained for treatment. This was a small inconvenience to pay for pandemic vigilance.

During the episode, all schools, many sporting events, and some businesses were closed by the Government of Mexico at a real cost to the nation of millions of dollars of lost productivity.  Again, that was a relatively small price to pay early in the progression of steps to contain a contagious disease that did seem at the time either more transmittable or virulent or both.  Today the U.S. owes Mexico a huge “¡Gracias!” for setting an example, even though nothing more serious than a normal flu season flu ensued. But seemingly for months, the origin was thought to be swine farms in southeastern Mexico.  This proved to be false, but the misperception lingers even today.

Lesson two: Don’t accuse and not assist.

Neighbors look out for each other when their common health or any other security is involved.  When former President Calderon flew to Japan over California and saw widespread wildfires, he immediately called then Governor Schwarzenegger to offer his firefighters.  “Your state is on fire,” he said, “What can I do?”

I often wonder, given the extraordinarily wide charge given to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) (the ones that clear you to fly when you come back to the U.S. from overseas, not TSA that clears you to fly within the U.S.), if we can expect them to monitor regular migration, drug and contraband trafficking, “first in nation” invasive as well as smuggled plants and animals, and other threats, whether we are asking too much for them to manage crowds of tourists and travelers while anticipating diseases symptoms at the same time. A more effective alternative may be for CBP to communicate and collaborate with their southern counterparts, to insure shared monitoring and equal prevention tactics.

The show must go on

While the necessary steps to prevent the spread of Ebola must be taken and lessons learned from Mexico’s reaction to the last public health scare, our southern border must continue with business as usual. Trade and tourism between the U.S and Mexico is too valuable to be jeopardized.  Measured at over a half trillion (yes with a T) dollars annually, the two industries create and maintain millions of jobs here and there assuring mass net migration stays at zero.  And, as important as the joint advanced manufacturing platform that the three NAFTA nations have built, trade and tourism allows North America to maintain its competitiveness on the world marketplace.