Archive for category Ebola

Ebola and Globalization

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“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.

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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.

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Outbreak!

Stats through July 31

Stats through July 31

Most of us treat the story about the Ebola outbreak in Africa as a curiosity.   This isn’t the first story about Ebola somewhere in Africa, but it always seems to get contained.   However, the current Ebola outbreak has become more widespread than any time in the past; if it spreads in Nigeria, especially to the capital of Lagos where a case has been reported, it risks becoming the a world wide epidemic.

It started, like small past outbreaks have, in what seemed to be an isolated village, Guéckédou, Guinea.  In December 2013 a two year old died of suspected Ebola, as did a few others.  After that things seemed quiet until February of this year when the disease started spreading through Guinea.  In March Doctors Without Borders warned that this was a dangerous epidemic and would be difficult to contain.

But Ebola in an African country is not unprecedented, so most people shrugged off the news.  Then in May it spread to Sierra Leone, and later to Liberia.

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, one of Africa's most famous doctors, succumbed to Ebola in Sierra Leone, despite having followed all the protocols

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, one of Africa’s most famous doctors, succumbed to Ebola in Sierra Leone, despite having followed all the protocols

A few facts:  Ebola is spread through exchange of bodily fluids, which can include sweat and thus touch can transmit the disease.  It kills over half of its victims, and this strain seems to have a death rate of near 70%.   Once infected, there is no cure.  There are treatments, but those usually involve basic patient care to increase the chances of survival.   There is no vaccine, nor are there any potential vaccines or cures anywhere near any kind of human testing.   Since the disease has been very limited in scope, drug companies haven’t had the profit motive to invest large amounts in preparing for a potential outbreak.

If it spreads, we’re in trouble.

There has been a case in Lagos, Nigeria, a city of over 20 million people.   Not only is Lagos immense, but it is full of slums and dirty living conditions.  If it spreads there, it could rage out of control.   Lagos is also home to major transnational oil companies who operate in Nigeria.   Ebola in a city won’t stay in the slums.   There is a lot of international travel from Lagos, and it’s likely that an outbreak in Lagos would become global.

At this point, the response has been slow.   Seen as an African disease, the West hasn’t taken it seriously, nor has it given African states affected the aid they need.  Governments in the West haven’t funded research into cures or vaccines because it wasn’t seen as a major problem.

But it’s not too late.  At this point, the virus is not out of control, even if this outbreak is larger and more dangerous than any time in the past.  For once Ebola is in a position to become a global pandemic, and even if the chances are still relatively small, the time to act is now.  Not only to prevent this outbreak from spiraling out of control, but to prepare for the future.  This will happen again, and again, and each time the risk of a pandemic will grow.  This needs to be a global priority.

There is nothing about Ebola that makes it an African disease;  if it spreads to the West it will be hard to stop

There is nothing about Ebola that makes it an African disease; if it spreads to the West it will be hard to stop

The governments of the West need to give as much aid as possible to assist the effort on the ground in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.   The focus now can’t be primarily on potential cures or vaccines — there’s not enough time for that — but to treat, quarantine, and contain the virus where it is.

That means sending people and supplies – basic medical equipment, including gloves, sanitizing agents, sheets and material used to disinfect and create sanitary conditions.  Good quarantine facilities will make it easier to contain the virus.  People on the ground can make it easier to identify cases and get help to where it’s needed.

Yes, it’s dangerous.   More health care workers have died in this outbreak than any other Ebola outbreak before – not only in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the health care workers.  That is scary – and one can understand people in the West not wanting to go into a situation where even the top doctors have not been immune from infection.  But we send troops into battle, and health care workers have proven themselves as brave as soldiers.   They often have helping others as their main goal.

Still, if we want to send enough people to make a difference, they need to be well equipped and everything possible done to protect health care workers.   This is real.  The time to act is now – this is a real and present danger, and the warning signs are clear.   Otherwise we risk that 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Ebola plague.

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