I’ve been following the unfolding ebola catastrophe in Africa via two very excellent, well-regarded, and level-headed infectious disease blogs: Avian Flu Diary and H5N1. As a parent of three small children, I’ve been following these blogs on and off for a few years now, and if you don’t have these two in your regular rotation, I highly recommend both of them. Between them these blogs cover 90% of the non-alarmist, fact-based news in the realm of infectious diseases. And both of these blogs are run by amateurs, so they have no financial incentive to drum up pageviews with alarmist headlines and ledes.
All of that having been said, I’ve recently found myself reading these two blogs’ coverage of ebola and wondering, “Okay really, should I freak out or not? Because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this movie a few times, and I don’t love the ending.”
Ultimately, I’ve decided not to freak out, but I’ve also come to believe that ebola could have serious consequences for the US without actually infecting anyone on US soil. It has to do with the many ways in which we’re all so interconnected and with the fact that the foundation for domestic panic has been laid by Hollywood.
Good News, Bad News
Both blogs mentioned above have consistently taken the “don’t freak out” position, which can be roughly summarized as follows:
- The industrialized west is just not in direct danger from an ebola outbreak. Ebola is a disease of poverty, superstition, and spotty medical infrastructure. We have good hospitals here, and the capability to implement all of the protocols that can prevent something like ebola from spreading.
- Ebola is not nearly as contagious as something like the seasonal flu. You can avoid catching it by avoiding direct physical contact with the infected (and/or their fluids), which seems simple enough.
- Other diseases, like malaria, kill orders of magnitude more people every year than ebola has since it was discovered, and nobody flips out about those. So chill out.
So that’s case for calmness, which I generally subscribe to.
On the other hand, the WHO’s pronouncements have become increasingly apocalyptic as the disease continues its ever expanding rampage. On the nightly news we’re treated to scenes from the first act of every pandemic apocalypse movie ever: doctors in full hazmat gear who nonetheless succumb to the disease, infrastructure collapse and bodies in the streets, riots and quarantines enforced at gunpoint, the US and UK sending in the troops, and so on.
And then there are the articles like this one, admittedly from one of the aforementioned pageview mills, entitled: “This Mathematical Model from 2006 Shows How Ebola Could Wipe Us Out”.
Yaneer Bar-Yam, the complex systems analyst whose model accurately predicted the global unrest that led to the Arab Spring, is also worried about the patterns he sees in the disease’s advance. Models he designed for the New England Complex Systems Institute back in 2006 show that Ebola could rapidly spread, and, in a worse case scenario, even cause an extinction event, if enough infected people make it through an international airport.
“What happened was that we were modelling the dynamics of the evolution of diseases—of pathogens—and we showed that if you just add a very small amount of long-range transportation, the diseases escape their local context and eventually drive everything to extinction,” Bar-Yam told Motherboard. “They drive their hosts to extinction.”…
The argument has been made that an Ebola outbreak would not be as severe in the West as it is in Africa, because the poor healthcare infrastructure where the disease has struck is the chief vector of its spread. Bar-Yam sees this assumption as a vast overestimation of our handle on the dynamics of disease containment.
So, corpses in the street, hazmat suits, riots, the world’s militaries, and now a crazy statistician with complex computer models is desperately trying to hit the panic button, but the medical establishment just won’t listen until it’s TOO LATE! Like I said, I’ve seen that movie before. (Paging Jeff Goldblum or, more recently, Corey Stoll.)
But real life isn’t a disaster movie. So let’s assume that the cooler heads in the medical world are correct, and that even if ebola does hop a plane to JFK and infect a few people in Manhattan, we’ll be able to contain the outbreak in short order. In this scenario, it’s only those poor Africans and third-worlders who are screwed, and hey, they were pretty screwed anyway, amirite? I mean, if ebola doesn’t get ‘em, malaria, or civil war, or malnutrition, or God only knows what else will–or so goes one line of reasoning for not doing too much.
Unfortunately, thanks to the myriad ways in which we moderns are intimately wired together, it’s not that simple.
The Problem with the “It Stays in the Third World” Scenario
A recent post on reddit has helpfully pointed out something that has been bothering me about the “it stays in the third world” scenario, and that is this: the ebola outbreak could very well spread to where the oil is. Plus, some of the non-western countries with shaky medical infrastructure (where ebola could potentially sow chaos) have nukes and aren’t in the best shape right now.
People shouldn’t be worried about Ebola crossing an ocean. They should worry about it crossing a desert.
If an epidemic breaks out in North Africa, if Ebola makes it North of the Sahara, the world could be in for a horrific pandemic. There would be no stopping an epidemic in a region torn apart by war and revolution. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt could all be breeding grounds.
[NOTE from Country Christian… if you read the entire article you will find an amazing scenario, not the usual run of the mill thinking, regarding Ebola that will pen new avenues of thought for most.]