Nate Silver's dishonest critique of travel bans

ebola lagos airportNate Silver, of, has apparently received the White House memo asking its bootlicks in the media to push back on the demand sane people are making for a travel ban on countries with an active Ebola epidemic. To make his case, in the words of William F. Buckley, he acts like a pyromaniac in a field of strawmen.


Duncan’s case has sparked calls to ban flights to the United States from the countries hardest hit by the recent Ebola outbreak — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — possibly along with others in West Africa. While some of these arguments have been measured, others seem to convey the impression there are thousands of passengers arriving in cities like Dallas each day from flights originating in these countries.

There aren’t. We searched on and airline websites for direct flights from West African nations (as the United Nations defines the region) to destinations outside the African continent. Specifically, we looked for flights available for the week from Jan. 2 to Jan. 8, 2015, a time period far enough in advance that such flights are unlikely to have sold out.

There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — and very few from other countries in West Africa. There are far more flights from West Africa to Western Europe instead. Duncan’s case was typical. Before arriving in the United States, he connected through Brussels.

Next we are told:

All of those cities, of course, offer abundant connections to the United States. There are about 280 flights each week from London to New York alone, and thousands more involving other transatlantic city pairs.

A traveler from West Africa could also connect through the Middle East. There are as many flights to Dubai from the region each week (37) as there are to the United States, along with regular connections to Istanbul, Doha and Beirut.


And from there we get to his conclusion

But for a ban to be even halfway effective, it would need to be much more sweeping than banning the handful of direct flights from West Africa to the United States. It seems unlikely that travel from Europe or the Middle East will be halted. But the next Ebola patient may be on a flight from London, not Liberia.

Silver has found 37 direct flights to the United States per week that originate in West Africa. That is interesting trivia but hardly relevant. If you accept, as Silver obviously hopes you do, the premise that a travel ban means banning direct flights, then you are left with the conclusion that Silver’s puppeteers in the administration want you to reach: a travel ban is futile unless you essentially ban all flights into the United States. But that isn’t the case. In fact, only a moron would offer that argument.

Fact: the land borders of those nations with active Ebola outbreaks have been closed by their neighbors.

Fact: there are extensive air travel restrictions in effect that limit the ability of people to travel from Ebola outbreaks. For instance, to deal directly with Silver’s doomsday scenario

Countries that have implemented Ebola-related travel restrictions:

  • Gambia has banned the entry of flights from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
  • Gabon has banned the entry of flights and ships from countries affected by Ebola.
  • Senegal has banned flights from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • Cameroon has banned flights to and from Nigeria.Chad has suspended all flights from Nigeria.
  • Nigeria has suspended flights to the country operated by Gambian national carrier Gambia Bird.
  • Côte d’Ivoire has now lifted the ban on passenger flights from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Details of airlines that have restricted flights to Ebola-affected countries:

  • Air France suspended flights to Sierra Leone from 28 August.
  • The Togo-based carrier Asky Airlines has suspended flights to and from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • Arik Air (Nigeria), Gambia Bird and Kenya Airways have suspended services to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • British Airways has extended their suspension of flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until 31 December.
  • Emirates Airlines has suspended flights to Guinea.
  • Korean Air suspended flights to and from Kenya from 20 August.
  • Senegal Airlines has suspended flights to and from Conakry (Guinea) until further notice.

So, to use Silver’s methodology, a US ban on direct flights from selected countries would mere augment the extensive international travel restrictions already in place. If effect, we would be cooperating with the international community rather than consciously circumventing the international effort to stop the spread of Ebola.

But Silver’s entire argument is silly in the extreme.

According to the CDC, to the extent that we trust anything they say anymore, nearly 1100 people from countries with an active Ebola outbreak. (We really have to assume that is a floor not a ceiling number.) Why does the CDC talk about people and Silver talk about flights? Because because people carry Ebola not airplanes. And because Silver is playing the role of a dishonest hack in this particular instance.

The first step on a travel ban is to refuse entry to anyone from a nation with an active Ebola outbreak. This is easy to do. For people to travel internationally, they need passports. If they wish entry to the United States most must have an entry visa. There are a small number of countries whose citizens are allowed entry to the US without a visa. None of those countries are in Africa.

The next step is screening other passengers from the region both by questionnaire and by examination of passports for exit visas from affected countries.

Getting back to the case of Mr. Duncan. If a travel ban had been in effect his Liberian passport would have resulted in him not being able to board an aircraft from Monrovia in the first place as the plane would not have been flying to the US. If he had used an indirect route, his Liberian passport would have resulted in him being denied a boarding pass at any airport in the world. If,by some miracle, he did get on a flight, his Liberian passport would have resulted in him being turned back when he landed in the United States.


Will this catch 100% of the possibilities? No. But nothing will. I would submit stopping 1000+ people a week who are fleeing nations with an Ebola outbreak… and who possibly know they are infected and are seeking medical care in the US rather than in a hospital in Monrovia… is a positive start. It reduces the number of entrants. It slows their rate of travel so if they are infected they will be showing more symptoms. AND it cooperates with the international community.

In summary, a US travel ban on passengers from affected countries would be a) extremely easy to implement and b) have minimal effect on international travel.



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