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Ebola Catches Fire

Well, we’ve let it scare the hell out of us.

In total ethnocentric, self-serving fashion, Americans didn’t worry about Ebola until a man died from it in the United States. Now people are reacting as if Ebola will bring about the end of the world by next Tuesday (or is it Thursday?)

It ought not to have happened this way. We’ve known what it is from earlier outbreaks; we even waited and watched as it spread beyond the usual limited areas, until the numbers should have told us that, this time, it could mushroom into something huge and have a significant impact on other areas of the world besides West and Central Africa (which we basically don’t care about).

Two weeks ago, Bloomberg Businessweek documented the way government agencies (and Republican parsimony) treated the disease’s urgency, refusing to support adequate funding for basic research that could have been completed at a fraction of the expense that the current outbreak will now cost us.  And that doesn’t even factor in the enormous human suffering. We believed that we could save money by pushing the problem into some vague time in the future—the same way we deal with our crumbling infrastructure. Well, this will be much more horrific and costly than rebuilding a collapsed bridge.

It’s taken until the last ten days, with the initial cases of Ebola in the United States, for most Americans even to become aware of the problem. Now people are panicked, likely to respond in completely irrational ways. Last week, FOX news commentator Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, why we simply can’t seal our borders and keep Ebola out. That may be one of the most naive questions ever asked on Fox TV, but it typifies the ignorance of most people concerning the disease. Dr. Fauci was so taken aback by Hasselbeck’s question that he hardly knew how to respond.

Ebola’s going to be almost impossible to fix by waving a wand, because most Africans have no access to basic health care. Nor do they have that much knowledge of preventive health: sanitation, washing hands, cleanliness. The reason? The majority of them do not have access to safe water; they live in remote areas, where news still travels slowly; they believe in indigenous solutions for confronting sickness and disease. They want to attend to their dead in a respectful way, which means touching the bodies. But safe water is still the basic health problem. Even in big cities like Lagos, Nigeria (with its millions of people), you can’t drink the tap water.

African governments have extremely limited resources for dealing with any health problem, let alone Ebola. Have we already forgotten the way that AIDS spread across Africa twenty-five years ago? Hopefully, Ebola will not become such a big killer, but in the process of being contained, it is likely—as most Africanists have already speculated—to destabilize a number of already fragile countries, resulting in mass starvation, social breakdown, and chaos, as people (the ones who are affluent and mobile) try to get OUT of the path that they now see spreading Ebola.

Before its full retreat in Africa, Ebola will spread to most of the continent and to the Western world, not in large numbers but enough cases for Westerners to become much more worried than they already are. African borders are mostly porous; people can easily move from one country to the next. There will be affluent Africans who will start doing whatever it takes to get away from the troubled areas. They will cross borders in lorries, taxis and other inexpensive methods of transportation and keep going until they reach a destination from where they will be able to hop on a flight or a boat that will take them outside of Africa. Can you blame them? This outflow of people—some of them already infected, as Thomas Duncan, the Liberian who died in Texas must have suspected he was—will bring Ebola with them in increasing numbers.

Fortunately, Western countries will be able to contain these cases, but the panic—as we have already observed—will become huge. Again, remember the fear about AIDS? So we’re going to see individual cases of Ebola pop up in hundreds of places outside of Africa, not just the few we’ve already observed. And this will—besides putting a strain on our own health systems and frighten people even more—hopefully finally get us concerned enough to fund the research and complete it for a vaccine or vaccines. In the meantime, it’s not going to be pretty.

Watch carefully, as the uninformed continue to spread the fear of contagion by their noise, their desire to blame someone, and the ugly incidents we are likely to observe as they throw away everything rationale for the hysterical.

Charles R. Larson has observed and written about Africa for more than fifty years. Email: clarson@american.edu.