Ebola and Globalization


“Close the borders!”  “I’m not going to travel anywhere!”  “Kick any African out of the country!”  These are statements of irrational fear of Ebola. The reality is that the US is probably going to contain the virus this time due to the intense and thorough efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) .  Ebola is not easily transmitted, the biggest threat currently is to care givers, especially those at the end of life.

Yet while a lot of the panic we see in the US is irrational fear, there is reason to fear the spread of Ebola, which could become a global pandemic.  That rational fear is illustrative of the changing nature of global politics.   Diseases like Ebola cannot be contained geographically if it reaches a certain tipping point.  Due to globalization the threat is real and universal.  China does a lot of business on the African continent, one could imagine it hitting that country.  The world is connected.

So what is the proper response?   First, the racist reaction of some needs to be rejected.  The idea that this is an African or “black” disease is simply wrong.  It’s a human disease, and no life is more valuable than another.  Second, irrational fear must give way to rational fear.  That is the fear that the disease could spin out of control in Africa, thereby dramatically increasing the likelihood of a global pandemic.

That rational fear gives us one logical course of action: the countries of the developed world, with wealth and technology, need to do all they can do to combat Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia before it spreads further.   We need to recognize that their problem is our problem.  Trying to isolate ourselves from them only increases the chances that we’ll ultimately suffer from a pandemic.   Our best defense is to defeat the virus while it can still be contained.  Rapidly, time is running out.


It strikes me that Ebola is a perfect example of how our thinking is not yet in sync with the reality of globalization.  We still think in terms of sovereign states, independent, and able to protect ourselves from outside threats.  We’ve not yet internalized the fact that we are so connected with the rest of the world that sovereignty exists more as a legal concept than practical reality.   Instead of calling for a massive influx of aid and support for the fight against Ebola in Africa, we call to close the borders and stop travel.  That’s short sighted and counter productive.

Yet it’s still that way on a plethora of issues.  While neo-liberal orthodoxy keeps us from grasping protectionism in a down economy, on most issues we act like we have the power to go our own way as a country, regardless of what others want.   That is an illusion.

China could in a day destroy our economy.   China won’t, because the consequences for China could be catastrophic.  However, they have the capacity to inflict economic harm at will if we do things that they find contrary to their interest.   That’s just one example.  Globalization has so linked the world economy that we’re all on the same boat, even if we imagine we’re captaining one boat in a vast fleet of individual ships.

Ebola perfectly illustrates the dangers of such anachronistic thinking.  By fearing the disease and thinking we can protect ourselves, we call for things like travel bans, isolation, and an internal focus.  We worry about it spreading here, and follow the small number of US cases with diligence, open to rumor and gossip.

To avoid a real threat from Ebola, we have to fight it where it is now virulent - in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea

To avoid a real threat from Ebola, we have to fight it where it is now virulent – in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea

What we should be doing is following the cases over in Africa, worried about the inability of those states to contain the virus.  We should be clamoring for our government, the UN, and the governments of the industrialized world to do everything possible to contain Ebola now in those countries.   The reality is that if Ebola continues to spread, it will mutate, perhaps become airborne, and ultimately be global.   Nothing we can do will prevent it from hitting our shores if that happens.

We don’t really protect ourselves by focusing on what’s going on now in the US, our best protection is to be proactive in places where Ebola is rapidly spreading.

But we won’t, too many of us are locked in old style thinking.   Meanwhile the clock is ticking on our chance to contain Ebola in West Africa, our best bet to avoid a global pandemic.

  1. #1 by lee1978 on October 16, 2014 - 21:26

    I also personally think that a lot more research will go into Ebola now that it has become “our” disease as well. I think there has been this perception that this illness would always stay in Africa. I also do think that while the hysteria is misplaced, so is a certain arrogance. We need to realize that it is a serious disease and treat it as such.

  2. #2 by elizjamison on October 17, 2014 - 06:34

    Scott, as always, I appreciate your rational take on things. I especially enjoyed your ISIS article…it, like this one, made me panic a little less. I come from a pretty right-wing conservative background, so it’s always good for me to read your blogs.

    There is one thing that you didn’t address, and that is what really does scare me. It’s the stupidity of people who travel when they’ve got the virus. The nurse who went to Cleveland yesterday to plan for her wedding – – she went to countless bridal stores, shopping malls, etc. How many people did she come into contact with?

    I’m confident in Atlanta’s CDC, and I agree with you that we need to stop the problem where it began. But how do we stop it from becoming even more of a problem here when our own citizens – healthcare workers who should know better for crying out loud – knowlingly spread the virus?

    So, that one cartoon you had with terrorist on the left and Ebola on the right: Yes, I get the point. Don’t stop our lives because of irrational fear. BUT…..because of people like the woman I mentioned above, I kind of feel like the guy in the picture.


    P.S. I continue to share your articles with my classes. Thank you so much for faithfully giving us what I feel is a fair report on events.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on October 19, 2014 - 13:14

      She apparently had a very mild fever and asked the CDC if she could fly. Mild fevers are common without ebola, the nurses all had lots of protective gear, so they didn’t bar her from flying. That makes sense – but in hindsight it was the wrong call. As Helen’s comment below indicates, the chances of her infecting anyone on the plane are almost zero. Still, right now the CDC is in hyper precaution mode, so I think they’ll monitor nurses, especially end of life caregivers (that’s when it’s easiest to get the virus as the body fluids are literally full of them by that point), very closely. Here in Maine a teacher got put on 21 day paid leave because she attended a conference in Dallas no where close to the hospital. That strikes me as being a bit too cautious!

  3. #4 by helenofmarlowe on October 17, 2014 - 08:30

    I am not concerned about ebola, for myself or my family, but I’ve been puzzled about what seems to me a contradiction in the advice the CDC is giving to the public. We should not worry, because Ebola is not airborne. It cannot be spread by coughing or sneezing. It can be spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids (blood, feces, vomit). If that is the case, why are we worried about all the passengers on the flight taken by the second infected nurse? She did not vomit, no one on the flight came in contact with her blood or feces — I’m puzzled about that.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on October 19, 2014 - 13:09

      I suspect they’re not taking any chances. I don’t know how bodily fluids might be exchanged on a plane, maybe they thought the nurse might have snuck into a bathroom with some guy to join the mile high club. I know, those things are extremely unlikely, but probably if they can imagine it possible, they’ll cover every precaution.

  4. #6 by timactual on October 19, 2014 - 14:56

    Why wallow in ignorance?


    And remember, you are betting your life and the life of your loved ones on the accuracy of their conclusions based on limited experience and knowledge. This is the organization whose leader says you can transmit Ebola on a bus but you can’t catch it on a bus.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on October 19, 2014 - 17:13

      I certainly believe that the experts at one of the most respected centers in the world know more than anybody else and have the resources to examine it. Using sound bite games to try to discredit them is assinine. Some people want to politicize everything and stoke fears. Sigh.

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