October 21, 2014

Cornellians Split by Mandated University Travel Restrictions

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Following the University’s announcement that travel restrictions would be placed on certain West African nations, several Cornellians said they supported Cornell’s decision.

Administrators announced Thursday that it would be placing restrictions on University-related travel to West African nations under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warnings, which for Ebola currently includes Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Shivang Tayal ’16, international liaison at large and vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Assembly, said he agreed with the University’s response to the Ebola crisis.

“While these restrictions may create inconveniences to people and students who need to travel from Ebola-affected regions, I feel these are required to ensure that this outbreak is contained and restricted,” he said.

Prof. Jens David Ohlin, law, said he believes that the University’s response seems “appropriate,” in light of the appeal process for exceptions. Those who request exemption from the travel restrictions must fill out an International Travel Advisory and Response Team application form two to six weeks before their anticipated trip, according to the University.

“The risk at Cornell is very low, just as it is across the United States,” Ohlin said. “However, we

need to set in place policies that will protect the community if the situation worsens — which may very well happen. That’s the most important thing.”

Ohlin said he sees the administration’s approach of “getting out in front of the situation instead of responding after-the-fact” as “smart.”

“I think everyone can go ahead with their business on campus without any fear,” Ohlin said.

Although no Cornell Abroad programs have been directly affected, Gerrit Wissink ’14 — who studied abroad in Senegal — said he feels that the measures might be excessive.

“Regardless of Ebola’s origin, it certainly sounds like Cornell is taking appropriate [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]-endorsed steps to make sure the entire community remains safe from Ebola without buying into panic,” Wissink said. “However, the strong discouragement of hosting visitors from those countries and the requirement to contact Gannett could be viewed as excessive, especially on top of the screenings that have started at major U.S. airports.”

Wissink said he does not feel that other study abroad programs in neighboring countries should be affected by the Ebola crisis.

“If I were back in Dakar at this time, I would not be panicked by Ebola,” Wissink said. “The most stressful thing would probably be to convince family and friends in the U.S. that they should not panic for me. As a student there, I would be much more careful about personal and food hygiene as well as stay up-to-date on the Ebola situation.”

The Ebola crisis most likely will not affect students studying abroad in programs in other neighboring countries, according to Wissink.

“As a potential parallel example, violence broke out in neighboring Mali when I was in Senegal,” Wissink said. “It had zero impact on my experience there other than I learned a lot more about Mali. I think it is important to keep in mind that the virus is rare and relatively difficult to get, as the University highlighted.”

Discriminating against or stereotyping Africans is a potential problem in light of the Ebola crisis and travel restrictions, according to Ohlin.

“I think there is a potential problem that people might jump to conclusions regarding someone’s threat level –– with regard to contagions –– simply because of the color of their skin,” Ohlin said. “That’s just plain wrong because it is discrimination, pure and simple. It’s also irrational.”

At the same time, Ohlin also said he warns against possible oversensitivity to discrimination that might prevent an effective response to Ebola.

“I think that sensible public policy requires heightened scrutiny for individuals who have traveled to certain locations,” Ohlin said. “Again, that’s not based on skin color, that’s based on travel itinerary.”

Ohlin stressed the importance of asking the right questions to the right people when it comes to the government’s approach to Ebola.

“The government should be keeping track of which specific locations in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are most affected by the outbreak, so that they can ask the right questions for those individuals returning from those locations,” Ohlin said. “Hospital workers and triage nurses also need to be trained to ask the right questions.  That’s not discrimination, that’s sensible public health measures.”