“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.
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.