West Africa’s 9/11?

The West African country of Liberia is crippled by a recent outbreak of the Ebola virus.

Compiling coverage of the Ebola epidemic from around the region, Margaret Hartmann points to a reflection by Liberian journalist Makanfi Kamara on how the outbreak, whose death toll is approaching that of September 11, 2001, is impacting her society in a similarly extreme way:

The Ebola virus has not only caused tragedy and changed the lives of people affected, but it has also drastically affected our life style. Liberians are so used to greeting each other by touch – a hand shake here, an embrace there, even a kiss. Where we used to share cups, bowls and spoons; beds, clothes and shoes; we now think thrice about potential threats of infection from our closest friends and relatives. Instead, we wash hands religiously at every door post, keep a distance beyond arm’s length and sometimes bow to greet each other like the Chinese. Some women have even put their male partners “on dryer” – a moratorium on sexual activity until the Ebola Season is over. And many men have admitted that, fearing for their own lives, they have decided to “abide by the rules of the game” – fidelity.

There are also direct and indirect psychological effects:

where members of households and families are infected with Ebola, the dichotomy of care vs. neglect persists, because of the fear of infection being transmitted. Where armed government forces go shooting at unarmed people contesting an imposed quarantine; or where family revenue streams get dried up because of epidemic-preventive regulations imposed by government or private employers; it gets really disturbing and forces people to find new ways to adapt to the situation. Then, there is the sight of dead bodies lying all over, in the streets; and the depression of thinking you could be next and the stigma it leaves you with.

Alex Park remarks on the chaos:

On Monday, Liberia’s legislature announced that the House of Representatives had canceled an “extraordinary sitting” to discuss the outbreak because its own chamber had been tainted by “a probable case of Ebola” and was being sprayed down with chlorine. The statement didn’t specify the source of the infection, but it noted that one of the chamber’s doormen had recently died after a “short illness.”

Liberia is ill-equipped to fight off the Ebola outbreak. Its entire national budget for 2013-2014 was $553 million, with only $11 million allotted for health care—about what Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are estimated to have spent on their Bel Air mansion in 2012. Despite its meager resources, last month Liberia’s legislature allocated $20 million to battle virus. But the nation had already burned through a quarter of that money by the first week of September.

James Gibney wants China to pitch in, considering its deep economic investment in Africa:

With much fanfare, China has said it will increase the number of its medical personnel in Sierra Leone to 174 and raise its total amount of assistance to roughly $37 million. I know, I know: Relative to the U.S., China remains a poor country, and its growing willingness to extend humanitarian assistance outside its borders is a good thing. But consider this: China has close to 20,000 citizens working and living in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Setting aside U.S. money flowing into Liberia’s lucrative shipping registry, China’s investment in those three countries dwarfs that of the U.S. (In fact, China’s trading relationship with Africa overall is twice that of the U.S.) It recently signed deals for iron ore mining in the region that collectively run into the billions of dollars.

Laurie Garrett fears that the US military mobilization announced yesterday won’t be enough to curb the epidemic:

Nothing short of heroic, record-breaking mobilization is necessary at this late stage in the epidemic. Without it, I am prepared to predict that by Christmas, there could be up to 250,000 people cumulatively infected in West Africa. At least 30 nations around the world, I dare predict, will have had an isolated case gain entry inside their borders, and some will be struggling as Nigeria now is, tracking down all possibly exposed individuals and hoping to stave off secondary spread. World supplies of PPEs (personal protective equipment, or “space suits”), latex gloves, goggles, booties — all the elements of protection — will be tapped out, demand exceeding manufacturing capacity, and an ugly competition over basic equipment will be underway.

The great African economic miracle will be reversing, not just in the hard-hit countries but regionally, as the entire continent gets painted with the Ebola fear brush. Mortality due to all causes will soar in the region, as doctors, nurses, and other health care workers either succumb to Ebola, become full-time Ebola workers, or flee their jobs entirely.

But a reader objects to the doomsaying of Michael Osterholm, whose op-ed last week stoked fears of the virus mutating and becoming airborne:

Ebola is a horrible disease, but fear mongering over such an unlikely scenario hinders our ability to fight it properly.  We’ve already seen people raising concerns over flying patients back to the US for treatment when this is actually quite a safe scenario if proper precautions are taken.  The difficulty in Africa is they lack the healthcare infrastructure to take those kinds of precautions at a high enough level to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the forces of evolution not only push Ebola towards spreading more effectively but also towards being less lethal.  Dead patients don’t spread viruses very well.  So while random mutations could, in theory, make it airborne, what’s even more likely is random mutations would make Ebola non-lethal. What makes the virus scary is also what makes it evolutionarily unsound, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for all of us.

(Photo: James Momoh stands by as colleagues enter the suspected Ebola case ward Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit, on Tuesday September 16, 2014. The newly opened 50 bed unit is managed by International Medical Corp, and was built by Save the Children. By Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images)