On Wednesday morning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that all troops returning from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa would face a mandatory 21-day quarantine upon returning to the United States. This comes just a few days after the White House criticized New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for instituting the same policy for health care workers returning from West Africa to their respective states.
This has prompted a natural response: How can the administration criticize Cuomo and Christie for that policy when it is implementing the same thing itself?
So the White House position is that Chris Christie can't impose a quarantine but Chuck Hagel can?— Doug Heye (@DougHeye) October 29, 2014
This reaction, while seemingly logical, betrays an ignorance of why a mandatory quarantine for healthcare workers is a bad idea. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn explained, officials are concerned that a 21-day mandatory quarantine will deter health care workers from traveling to West Africa to fight the disease—workers that the infected countries desperately need. Elizabeth Downs, a nurse and teacher at Emory University, told the New York Times Tuesday, “I was thinking of going, but it was hard enough for me to get four to six weeks to go. Now that I know it’s going to be nine weeks, there’s no way I can go.” Another nurse called the quarantine a “big deterrent.” (Christie and Cuomo both reversed their policies a few days after announcing them.)
A mandatory quarantine for U.S. troops doesn’t create a similar deterrent. As Hagel explained Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum, a conference run by The Atlantic and Aspen Ideas Institute, "They aren't volunteers."
That is, the troops ordered to West Africa have no choice. Nurses do—and every single one of them is needed.