Obama Quarantines Soldiers, but Ebola Doctors, Nurses Can Do Whatever they Want

October 29, 2014

Yesterday, before taking off to attend a campaign event in Wisconsin, President Obama spoke to the press about the issue of Ebola. He praised the health care workers who are fighting the disease in West Africa, and indicated that he disagreed with the quarantine policies that the governors of New York and New Jersey have sought to implement for them. He doesn’t like these quarantines because they are insufficiently "supportive" of the efforts of the health care workers, and because they contribute to a climate of fear. The president said:

America in the end is not defined by fear. That's not who we are. America is defined by possibility. And when we see a problem and we see a challenge, then we fix it. We don't just react based on our fears. We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions.

Pro-fact, anti-fear: got it. At the end of the president’s remarks, a reporter asked why quarantine rules are different for members of the military than they are for the returning health care workers praised by Obama. Here is the president's response, in full:

Well, the military is a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily, it’s part of their mission that's been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the Commander-in-Chief. So we don't expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians. They are already, by definition, if they're in the military, under more circumscribed conditions.

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth, to go over there because they have a very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we want to make sure that when they come back that we are prudent, that we are making sure that they are not at risk themselves or at risk of spreading the disease, but we don't want to do things that aren’t based on science and best practices. Because if we do, then we’re just putting another barrier on somebody who’s already doing really important work on our behalf. And that's not something that I think any of us should want to see happen.

The president’s defense of quarantining members of the military (the DOD announced this morning that 21-day quarantines are now formal policy) but not health care workers rests on two pillars: 1) the servicemen are not treating patients, and 2) they are not volunteers.

The first argument is nonsense. Perhaps Obama misspoke. Surely as brilliant a legal mind as his would recognize the logical inconsistency. Those who treat patients should be subject to greater restrictions than those who don’t, rather than the other way around.

The second argument is not as self-evidently wrong, but it sure seems pretty insulting. Essentially, if you joined the military, shut up and do what you are told. If you are the sort of glamorous, globe-trotting healthcare professional who, upon returning from saving Africans from deadly diseases, likes to hang out at hipster spots in Brooklyn, well, by all means: do whatever you want! We’d hate to discourage you.

Perhaps this double-standard would be less grating if a handful of the returning health care professionals weren’t so obviously irresponsible. The doctor currently being treated in New York City certainly showed great courage for treating Ebola patients in Africa, and we all ought to wish him a speedy and full recovery. But he is also just as certainly an arrogant man who, despite his heightened risk for exposure to Ebola, wandered all over the Big Apple enjoying the relief of being home—something that returning servicemen cannot do. Then he lied about his actions to the police.

Then there is the nurse who was so insulted by the reasonable precautions being taken by the governors of New York and New Jersey to protect their citizens that she immediately lawyered up and made it very clear to the world that her personal liberty and sense of self-respect trumped everyone else’s desire for safety. She has now announced through counsel that, having traveled to Maine, she intends to defy any quarantines imposed there. Citizen of the year, that one.

American hospitals have, thus far, shown themselves to be good at keeping Ebola patients alive. This is great—but will only remain the case so long as our resources are not stretched, and the number of cases is so few that each and every patient can receive heroic levels of attention and cutting edge, expensive, and experimental treatments. As the scope of the disease increases in Africa,  it seems likely, as long as a strict travel ban is not imposed, that more cases will end up in the United States. If there are enough cases, resources for gold-standard treatment will become scarce.

The Department of Defense has taken reasonable precautions to protect Americans—and servicemen’s families—from this deadly disease. How many more American cases of Ebola will there need to be before the president, and the class of doctors-without-borders about whose privileges he seems to care so much, realize that they need to stop being so arrogant?