Why You Should Worry about Ebola

Historical map of the Bubonic Plague, Middle Ages.

Historical map of the Bubonic Plague, Middle Ages.

If you find yourself, at this moment, anywhere off the African continent and are not a health professional called to treat Ebola patients, the chance of you catching the disease is, at present, as close to zero as you can get. Please worry about driving safer, appliances near bathtubs, wet floors and all the other ways you are far more likely to meet your maker.

It is tragic that three nurses in the West have been infected through treating people, but there is a silver lining to this. It’s scaring the hell out of medical systems and hospitals. It means that there will soon be far more training, vigilance and rigour in dealing with any cases that come up. None of these women should have been infected, of course. It should not have taken even a single case of transmission during treatment to make hospitals pull their pants up, and implement rigid protocols. Médecins Sans Frontières have developed an excellent manual for healthcare workers, carers, visitors and patients. It is far more detailed and rigorous than the CDC poster and it has a proven track record to beat every other organization. It’s here: FHFfinal

Meanwhile, there are currently approximately 9,000 recorded cases of Ebola in the current outbreak and 4,500 deaths so far. But this is probably an underestimate. There are people sickening and dying in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea who suffer and slip away without even being a notation on anyone’s spreadsheet. The WHO estimates that infection rates could easily rise to 10,000 per week by December. I won’t keep boring you with numbers, but the number of facilities, beds, medical staff and even burial teams to cope with the current levels of infection and death are woefully inadequate. It would take a 10-fold increase in current facilities just to deal with the current rate of infection. And the numbers suggest that rates are doubling month on month.

In Sierra Leone, the legal system has virtually come to a standstill. The first signs of an impending food crisis are appearing in all three countries. Inflation is spiraling, people are abandoning their farms. None of these countries have terribly stable governments to begin with, but illness, fear and anger are further destabilizing them. ForeignPolicy.com reports that the pressures put on governmental structures in Guinea are threatening to pull the country apart.

There will come a point when Central African eyes are going to look West and wonder how in the hell we could have so flagrantly abandoned them to this chaos, this misery. To them, this has to look apocalyptic. For them, in fact, it practically is.

It is not unimaginable that this rage is going to blow back, ironically, on the few Westerners who have risked their lives to come to these countries to help deal with the outbreak. When people get scared and angry, social order breaks down, and it is historically common for them to take it out on anyone who doesn’t look like them. So it could become even harder and more dangerous to travel to the area to be of help.

It is also not unimaginable that at a certain pitch of fear, significant numbers of people are going to start to take to the roads, busses, trains, cars, motorcycles and flee to places they feel are less dangerous, not only from Ebola, but from social unrest and famine. The US and Europe may cut off flights, fearing an onslaught of panicked people from the region, but neighboring countries have far more to fear.  If you were a neighboring country, wouldn’t you worry that these refugees would infect your own population? When would you decide it was permissible to start shooting people fleeing across your border? Because it is risky to touch them, to house them, or to transport them home.

The Bubonic plague moved across Europe with surprising speed, considering most of the carriers were either on foot or on horseback. Please take a look at how morbidity and rates of infection compare between Ebola and the Plague. People fled infected areas, carrying the disease with them to almost everywhere on the globe. That was almost 1000 years ago. The Spanish flu reached every country on the planet at a time when almost no one was flying anywhere.

You can fool yourself that closing your country to incoming flights from the region will keep you safe, but all you are doing is postponing the problem. If this virus finds accommodation in major cities like Lagos, or Nairobi… if it reaches South Africa or Egypt, it will literally get everywhere. You would have to shut down cross border travel and commercial shipping and trade to and from everywhere to contain it. How likely is that?

You should worry about Ebola. Not about the virus but the fear, the political instability and the economic devastation that will result if it becomes more widespread. You, as an individual of a liberal Western democracy need to consider that no one else has the money or the technology or the know-how or the structures to stop this. Are you willing to raise taxes to fund the gargantuan effort and bear the costs necessary to stop it now, while it is still relatively contained, within the next few months?


Okay. Then please start panicking.