Those looking for good news on the fight against Ebola will not find much encouragement from Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command. As Jim Garamone of Department of Defense News reports, Kelly told an audience at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday that, if the disease reaches Central America, "it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States." He also said with certainty that "there is no way we can keep Ebola [contained] in West Africa."
“By the end of the year, there’s supposed to be 1.4 million people infected with Ebola and 62 percent of them dying, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]..."
“So, much like West Africa, it will rage for a period of time,” Kelly said.
This is particularly possible scenario if the disease gets to Haiti or Central America, he said. If the disease gets to countries like Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, it will cause a panic and people will flee the region, the general said.
“If it breaks out, it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States,” Kelly said. “They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”
Kelly said that human trafficking could be an additional wrinkle in the battle to contain the disease. He related a disturbing anecdote from a recent visit to Central America where some men from Liberia were headed to the United States:
Also, transnational criminal networks smuggle people and those people can be carrying Ebola, the general said. Kelly spoke of visiting the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua with U.S. embassy personnel. At that time, a group of men “were waiting in line to pass into Nicaragua and then on their way north,” he recalled.
“The embassy person walked over and asked who they were and they told him they were from Liberia and they had been on the road about a week,” Kelly continued. “They met up with the network in Trinidad and now they were on their way to the United States -- illegally, of course.”
Those men, he said, “could have made it to New York City and still be within the incubation period for Ebola.”
Earlier this year, General Kelly gave some chilling testimony about the limitations on the United States's ability to protect the southern border:
In spring hearings before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Kelly said that budgets cuts are “severely degrading” the military’s ability to defend southern approaches to the U.S border. Last year, he said, his task force was unable to act on nearly 75 percent of illicit trafficking events. “I simply sit and watch it go by,” he said. But the potential threats are even greater. Kelly warned that neglect has created vulnerabilities that can be exploited by terrorist groups, describing a “crime-terror convergence” already seen in Lebanese Hezbollah’s involvement in the region.
While Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden recently expressed some optimism in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, he acknowledged that "globally, this is going to be a long, hard fight."