Three impoverished, tiny West African nations are in a collective state of siege, their people surrounded by a microbial enemy, the Ebola virus. In response to months of inaction, followed by ineffective measures, the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have escalated their counterattack on the virus, imposing cordons sanitairesaimed at isolating entire regions of their countries in hopes of containing the enemy. It may slow the virus' spread, but it will not be sufficient to stop Ebola or lift the state of siege.
In recent days I have heard many media accounts of these governments' deployment of military personnel to cordon off the hardest-hit parts of their countries—accounts framing these actions as unprecedented in humanity's battles with Ebola, possibly inhumane or overly severe. These accounts are inaccurate.
I was in the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1995. As I described in Betrayal of Trust, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who also ruled the nation with an iron hand during the first known Ebola outbreak in 1976, wasted no time once the virus' presence was confirmed in foreign laboratories. All plane flights to the beleaguered, sprawling town of some half million souls—Kikwit—and its sole highway were shut down by the military.