Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Ebola: Losing Civil Liberties to Fear

By David TaylorPublished November 9, 2014

As the United States deals with a handful of Ebola cases, controversy over quarantining persons returning from infected African states. In a state of fear, states are overreacting and infringing on civil liberties in the name of safety.

By David Taylor, 11/9/2014

            The recent and ongoing Ebola outbreak has led the public and their representatives to fear a rapid spread of the disease to American soil. Although the U.S. has seen fewer than a dozen cases of the virus, only two of which were contracted on American soil, anxiety over the disease has become a top concern of many Americans. The Ebola virus is a horrifying virus causing an immense amount of suffering in West Africa, but the actual domestic risk does not warrant the fear and precautionary measures being taken by some states.

            New Jersey and Maine that have established quarantine procedures for health workers returning from West Africa. In Maine, local officials attempted to keep Kaci Hickox, a nurse recently returned from working for a charity in West Africa caring for patients, under quarantine. After being detained in New York and returning to Maine, Ms. Hickox was placed under restrictions limiting her mobility and contact with others. These restrictions exceeded those suggested by the CDC for individuals with "some risk" such as Ms. Hickox. While a Maine judge has rejected these restrictions, Maine's Governor Paul Lepage and New Jersey's governor Chris Christie have made it clear they are erring on the side of caution.

            Accusing these politicians of overreaction or of attempting to placate the uninformed public, although largely accurate, isn't altogether fair. The precedent for dealing with such a disease isn't clear, and despite the CDC's recommendations, an angry and fearful public is more difficult to ignore than a memo or suggestion. The precautions taken by Governors Lepage and Christie do not merely inconvenience individuals, however; they have an impact on the relief effort to countries stricken by the epidemic and on the civil liberties of the medical staff coming home from western Africa. Harsh restrictions and quarantining, while effective, are likely to hamper and discourage U.S. volunteers from providing supplies and assistance where it is needed most. This would inhibit the international response to the outbreak and likely cause more preventable cases, some even possibly spreading beyond Africa.

            This is to say nothing of the rights of these volunteers. Ostracism and quarantine without any reasonable cause violates a number of the rights guaranteed to United States citizens. Protection of public safety is part of governors' jobs, but they also have a duty to protect the rights of health-care workers. Going beyond the CDC recommendations will have only marginal positive impact and will serve to hamper the relief effort, all the while increasing public panic. Rights guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be abandoned by state officials at the first sign of trouble; protection of the public good does not justify the deprivation of freedom.