Reassuring Image: Among the peoples of the West, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. The Ancient Greeks would have called this hubris.
IT BEGAN with a two-year-old child: a little Guinean boy whose father and brothers regularly supplemented the family diet with “bush-meat”. That’s what killed him. Something deadly in the carcase of a hammer-headed fruit bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) carried home for the cooking-pot somehow found its way into his bloodstream.
A “megabat”, boasting a wingspan of nearly a metre, the hammer-head offers bush-meat hunters in the West African highlands a substantial meal. Unfortunately for the two-year-old, and then for his mother, sister and grandmother, Hypsignathus monstrosus is also one of the recognised asymptomatic carriers of the Ebolavirus.
Officially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that upwards of 10,000 West Africans have contracted the deadly Ebola virus, and that this latest outbreak of the highly contagious haemorrhagic disease has a terrifying case fatality rate of 70.8 percent. Unofficially, WHO is saying that the number of cases could be three or four times greater than the official estimate. They are also deeply fearful that in spite of positive stories about the disease’s containment, it may already be moving inexorably across the African continent. If (or perhaps that should be ‘when’) it reaches the densely populated cities of the East African coast, the number infected will soar into the hundreds-of-thousands. And if it continues to move along Africa’s traditional trade routes north, into Sudan, Somalia and Egypt, and further east, into India, then the world will be faced with a global pandemic of truly catastrophic proportions.
Among the peoples of the West, however, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. With our highly sophisticated public health systems geared-up and ready to respond, any infected person somehow making it across our borders faces instant containment and state-of-the-art medicine. For the fortunate minority of the planet’s population blessed with a white skin, all remains well.
For the moment.
Because, as American historian, Mike Davis, writes in his deeply depressing book, Planet of Slums: “[T]oday’s megaslums are unprecedented incubators of new and reemergent diseases that can now travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.”
Not that Ebola needs to be airborne. Every single day frail and criminally overloaded boats set sail from North Africa for Southern Italy. How long will it be before a lethal percentage of these thousands of illegal economic migrants arrives bearing the deadly virus? In the crowded slums of Naples, Rome and Milan, Ebola will spread with the same awful alacrity that brought it to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Perhaps this is simply the price we have to pay for twenty-first century capitalism’s “world without borders”? To discover that, in Davis’s words, “economic globalisation without concomitant investment in a global public health infrastructure is a certain formula for catastrophe.”
And even if the navies of the European Union were prepared to repel all boarders, the economic consequences of half-a-world afire with a deadly pandemic cannot be so easily sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean. One can only imagine how the already fragile global economy would respond to Ebola’s spread across the world. Fear and panic would grip Wall Street. Global transportation links would be severely, perhaps fatally, disrupted. Xenophobia would run rampant across the Western world. The long-discarded doctrine of economic self-sufficiency would instantly return to fashion. And, if the pandemic was to sweep up from South Asia and engulf China, the entire edifice of global industrial civilisation would shudder on its foundations.
It’s happened before. In the middle decades of the Fourteenth Century the whole of Eurasia was ravaged by a pandemic caused by the flea-borne microbial pathogen Yersinia pestis. The Black Death, as it came to be known, left entire regions depopulated. Villages and even cities were emptied of all but the dead. In Southern France and Spain the death rate may have climbed as high as 70-80 percent. The best estimates put the overall death toll at 100 million victims – more than a fifth of the total human population! It may have taken medieval civilisation another 150 years to finally expire, but there is no disputing the identity of its killer. Yersinia pestis.
Located where we are, at the bottom of the world, it is easy to dismiss all these grim speculations as unhelpful scare-mongering. Certainly, we must hope that they are nothing more than that. Our economic survival depends upon the unhindered flow of seaborne imports and exports and airborne tourists. New Zealand could not long endure in a world frozen solid by the ravages of Ebolavirus. The bitter truth being that if the death toll of any global pandemic ever exceeds one billion souls, then the world will have little pity to spare for a faraway nation of 4.5 million.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 October 2014.