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Fears and Presumptions about Pandemics

Ebola: Getting Antsy

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Will Ebola become the next pandemic juggernaut, making its way to carefree, happily developed societies? Or will it be associated, as such diseases tend to be in the jaundiced imagination, with the collective memory of doom and structural failure that is the developed world? The Irish Times reports the words of a “Guinean Ebola refugee” as if it were the promise of imminent viral holocaust. “Lots of people in my family are dead. I left my home and I don’t know what to do” (Aug 4). The paper goes on to report how the disease has taken 730 lives and infecting some 1,300 people, “creeping across West Africa”.

When problems come, they do so in fearsome battalions. Those in a country like the US react to such diseases in various ways. If it is a genuine threat to the welfare of the country, the pandemic brigades get busy with needle and antidote, though there is always that sense about how genuine the scale of such a threat ever is. The other side of it is a combination of knee jerk control, inefficiency and hysteria – something terrible is infecting us, and we are incapable of managing it.

Then there is the other reaction. Nothing is rotten, unstable or palpably wrong. All is quiet on the front porch of disease land. Only those poorly managed societies need worry, because developed countries have it sorted with ample resources and medical infrastructure. In the case of the Ebola virus, the sense of failing states is never far away in the narrative of viral control.

The number of reactions to the West African outbreak grow by the day. Patrick Sawyer, aged 40, died after travelling by plane from Liberia to Ghana, Togo and Nigeria, prompting more fears of viral movement. In Namibia, over a hundred passengers on Air Namibia flight SW722 were held in isolation for four hours on Friday after one was suspected of having the virus. It has since been deemed a false alarm. The United Arab Emirates is taking no chances with its Emirates Airline, revealing on Friday that it would suspend its service to Conakry from Saturday “until further notice, due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea.”

It has now made its way to the United States via two American citizens – Nancy Writebol of Serving in Mission, and Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse. The terrifying feeling of cordoning off societies, the police approach to viral infection, looms and media reports are doing nothing to discourage the idea. Then came the exposure of two American Peace Corps volunteers, one of them Sawyer. The social media feed got antsy over the very idea that infected citizens might be brought back for treatment.

Nigeria’s Tribune, for instance, headlines with the alarmist, “Global panic as Ebola spreads” (Aug 3). It chooses to see the World Health Organization as spreading messages of an uncontrollable pandemic, while sprinkling its news items with juicy images of infected patients. There is even a sense of satisfaction in the realisation that “the deadly virus has spread to major world powers such as the United States of America.”

Britain’s Daily Mirror, not wanting to be left out of the storming presumptions of the media pack, went for, “Ebola scare at Gatwick: 39 hours of panic after passenger collapses and dies getting off Sierra Leone flight” (Aug 4). Any perusal of the headline alone would suggest that a demonic assault on Britannia by virological forces was in the offing. Instead, while the passenger was “sweating and vomiting” before her death, “tests late night ruled out the deadly tropical disease as the cause of her death”.

The World Health Organization, through its spokesman Gregory Hartl has not recommended any firm or draconian travel restrictions, but there is a feeling that closing borders may be on the cards. Dr. Graham Fry of the Tropical Medical Bureau has tried reassuring the panic mongers that a massive progression of the disease is unlikely. “It’s not airborne. You can only catch the disease from close personal contact with someone through blood or bodily fluids. It’s not like TB, which you can catch if you are sitting seven rows in front of an infected person on a plane.”

Dr. Christopher Ohl of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre is trying to restrain those wishing to press the panic button. Instead, he is using the other approach. The missionaries were brought back to the US for treatment as, “Your chances of survival are going to be higher here. Our intensive care units are better, our resources are better and our medical care is better and there is absolutely no reason not to have them come back.”

There is no reason to take the line of the rational optimist, a title that writer and businessman Matt Ridley uses in critiquing and ultimately mocking the “eco-catastrophists” as he likes terming them. Problems of environmental decline, human-made disasters, but more to the point, fallible human responses to disaster, are all too frequent. Ridley has no interest in the cries of wolf, though the problem always remains what we can do when the wolf is genuine enough. Ebola may have that terrible clothing, but a response of panic and cultural presumption does nothing to restrain its march.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com