Is Ebola Unstoppable?


By Mathew J Johnstone

At the time of writing this, the first case of Ebola has just been confirmed in New York City. The casualty is Craig Spencer, a doctor who was tackling the disease with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

This is the latest development in a tragic saga that began in Western Africa earlier this year. The virus, formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, has claimed nearly five thousand lives in an increasing list of nations, and is now rapidly spreading throughout western countries – or at least through their media.

Unless you’ve been hiding in a hermetically sealed bunker from another equally dangerous virus, you can’t help but have been exposed to the relentless coverage of Ebola’s rise.

The first case of this year’s outbreak was confirmed in Guinea, although the disease has been ebbing and flowing on the African continent since the ‘70s. In by far the worst pandemic of the disease, it quickly spread to neighbouring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Ebola is a disease of opportunity, its spread enabled by the social and economic nature of the countries in which it thrives. Sierra Leone and Liberia are among the poorest nations in the most impoverished area of the planet. Decades of debt, unfair trade and brutal civil war left these nations without the healthcare system or basic infrastructure to combat a disease that needs a swift and strong response to stop its spread (even the richest country in the world struggled to contain the disease). A country that has less than a fifth of a doctor per 10,000 people is both the worst and most likely place for the disease to catalyse.

At this point, Ebola was seen in the western media in a much smaller font size than the screaming headlines from the last two months. To really have an understanding of the tragedy befalling Guineans required a few scrolls down the front page of the news. This all changed when we realised that people who had been selflessly treating patients with the disease could step on a plane in Freetown, step off in Heathrow and go around shaking everyone’s hand.

It was at this point that the hysteria erupted. Although the reaction was more extreme across the pond, Britain has not been immune to overreaction. A school in England cancelled an exchange visit with a teacher from Ghana despite the country being over six hundred miles away from the nearest affected country, and there are many more examples of fear triumphing over common sense.

In America, Ebola has become the latest stick that the Republican right are using to beat President Obama. Some critics are labelling this ‘his Katrina,’ a reference to George W Bush’s woeful lack of response to the damage caused to New Orleans back in 2005. The newest reaction is the slogan STOP THE FLIGHTS, parroted by everyone from Senators to cable news anchors to that guy in the hazmat suit protesting on the lawn of the White House. It is a worrying phenomenon; a mix of paranoia and reactionary xenophobia, a fear of ‘the ISIS of biological agents’ (credit to CNN). STOP THE FLIGHTS says ‘seal off the country. Leave the rest of the world to it.’

While the slogan arguably comes from a natural sense of self-preservation, the policy behind it is at best misguided and at worst incredibly dangerous. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, was repeatedly asked on Fox News why he didn’t want to ban all flights from affected areas and his response was simple: it’s impractical, and if you ‘isolate’ these countries, it will only make the disease spread and the situation dramatically and fatally worse. What’s needed, he said, is aid.

This raises the real question: can we stop Ebola? The shortest answer to this is yes, we can. With a careful screening process and investment in improving medical procedures and treatment we can stop Ebola making its way to Britain and its neighbours.

The more pressing question is whether the disease can be stopped in West Africa, the region that has seen all the fatalities and little press coverage, where orphans are being abandoned because adults are afraid of infection.

We know that it is possible to stop the spread to other African nations if the right action is taken: Nigeria, through ‘world-class epidemiological detective work,’ was able to stop one case becoming thousands. It is not hopeless.

And while governments are attacked for not stopping migration, we should be more concerned with what’s leaving our borders: Ikea donated more to fight Ebola than 40 European countries, including Spain and Italy.

So we should be worried about Ebola. We should be worried that nations crippled by poverty are being left to fight this disease alone. And we should be worried that we seem to care more about the possibility of someone dying in New York than we do about the thousands actually dying in Africa.}