Tuesday 28 October 2014

If Ebola Goes Global

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.


J Bloggs said...

I disagree that NZ would be devastated by a global shutdown as you posit. Indeed, while our economy would shudder and many people would have thier way of life disrupted, we, as a nation, are capable of producing enough food to support our population, and have the technical knowledge base to develop home grown industries to replace some of what we could no longer import. The biggest impact would be the loss of imported oil (which some might not see as a bad thing anyway...). However, I believe that we have the knowledge and ability to come up with ways around the issues created by that situation. If the disease can be prevented gaining a foothold here, then we are quite possibly (IMHO) the country best positioned to survive such a pandemic relatively intact.

A global pandemic, particularly of a non-airborne disease, has less chance of reaching us here, simply because we are 1200kms from the next nearest large land mass. Unlike many other nations where it can creep undected across the borders, we have the distinct advantage of distance, and the requirement of discrete means of approach to our country (boats and aircraft)

Sometimes there are advantages to being a small country at the bottom of the world, far away from everywhere else.

Andrew R said...

My understanding is that ebola is not highly contagious as you claim. Are you confusing contagiousness with the fact that the death rate for those infected is very high?

Jamie said...


pat said...

Contagion rate important, death rate also, but would suggest the most devastating impact would be the fear rate...it has already been noted the loss of economic activity in west Africa due to ebola with potential flow on effects i.e. lack of crop planting.
NZs isolated position though helpful would not grant it immunity and its ability to function as a recognisable society would be sorely tested, we may consider ourselves "innovative and practical" (I suggest no more so than any other national grouping) but thats not very helpful when the high tech part you need to allow your power generation plant to continue to operate is manufactured in a european country that no longer trades with this part of the world or possibly even is itself a functioning society.
Sadly the notion that any society could function at more than 3rd world level without the global trading system we have developed is laughable and is an obvious weak point in globalisation.
The recently reported study into population growth (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29788754) highlight the pressures that will be placed on the worlds ability to feed and water and place an ever expanding world population ...how would any society cope with these tasks without the advantages of the high tech, high speed and highly productive tools we currently take for granted?
I agree with Chris, our systems are already balanced on a knife edge and it will only take an Ebola pandemic (or the like) to upset that balance.....As with most disasters the the ability to cope is always rendered impossible by the lack of the one thing we cannot buy or manufacture..time.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think the experts are claiming that this disease does not spread very quickly. It's not airborne and not likely to be. But even so I suppose a panic could shut down travel. Oil shouldn't be a problem surely? We export quite a lot. Might get it a bit cheaper if we can't sell it anywhere else :-). Come to think of it, with an incubation period of 3 weeks, I can't see why it should shut down sea travel to New Zealand. Last I checked it still took about 6 weeks from Europe.

J Bloggs said...

Pat - I fear you are being unduly pessimistic about NZ's chances. Bearing in mind that what I am saying is contingent on NZ maintaining its isolation from the disease, then I beleive that technology wise, we would have to take a few steps backward - but people were building and running power plants and factories that produced technologies that enable society to run effectively a century ago - without electronics, without the internet, without, to a large extent, gasoline. While it may seem a huge step backward to the internet generation, it wasn't that long ago in the grand scheme of things.

Regarding the high tech parts - there is no reason (other than availiblity of rare materials) that a NZ company couldn't come up with a replacement part - the main reason we don't do so now is that it is not economic to do so - that rationale goes out the window when there is no other option for acquiring the part you need. NZ has suffiecntly educated and technically capable people able to step into the gap, along with an education ssytem capable of turning out more such people.

In a pandemic situation the key priorities would be maintaining the food supply to the population, which as a net exporter of food, we are capable of doing, and preventing the spread of the disease in NZ, which with our isolation is far easier for us than for most other nations. If those two conditions are met,then society can maintain law and order - Daily life, although significantly harder and different than today, would go on. Yes, there would be hardships, but no more so than during the depression, or world wars, and we survived those as a nation.

pat said...

J Bloggs (Joe?)
not just NZs chances, indeed I believe we are probably the best location to survive a global meltdown of any cause...but that would be what it was , survival... not the comfortable high tech lifestyle we currently expect.
I dispute the claim we dont manufacture much of what is vital for our (very limited) industry to function is merely due to cost competitiveness...there are numerous vital industries where we have no knowledge or capacity AND where there is no lower tech substitute...not as great a concern 40 plus years ago but now sadly you cannot repair or create substitutes at your local engineering firm....some vital items are only available from one or two highly specialised manufacturing labs in the world.
The claim we can educate and create these technologies from scratch ignores many factors not least of which is the time , and failures along the way.
Think Cuba for the period of US sanctions to the power of 100.
With the great benefits of specialisation comes great risk.

Jamie said...

Scene from Platoon

{Chaos and confusion reigns, fear panic and death is near, the fog of war}

Sgt. Barnes: [To CDC/Barack Hussein Obama]

You ignorant asshole!!!
What the fuck coordinates you giving???
You wasted a lot of people up there with your fucked-up pandemic response!!!

You know that???
You know that???

....Ah, shit!!!



Sgt. Barnes: Y'all take a good look at this lump of shit. Remember what it looks like.
You fuck up in a pandemic and I goddamn guarantee you a trip out of the bush in a body bag!!!
Out here, assholes, you keep your shit wired tight at all times!!!

[To 'the keep calm crowd']

Sgt. Barnes: And that goes for you, shit-for-brains. You don't run your mouth on no fucking ebola-pandemic!!!

[To CDC/US Govt]

Sgt. Barnes: And the next son of a bitch I catch copping "Z"s in the bush, I'm personally gonna take an interest in seeing him suffer.

I shit you not....

Trotter, tag em and bag em

Fern said...

Looking on the bright side of the Black Death, it’s my understanding that many of the able-bodied peasants who survived the pandemic found themselves enjoying a labour market where they could pick their employer and name their price, rather than being virtual slaves tied to one landowner.

pat said...

Have you perhaps inside knowledge of Labours re election strategy Fern?

Jamie said...


Jamie said...

Conspiracy to commit or fund mass-murder,
What's the penalty on that???