WASHINGTON – As of mid-October, there were almost 9,000 victims of the deadly Ebola virus, of whom more than 4,500 were confirmed dead. The true death toll is certainly higher because of natural under-reporting added to the fear of being labeled with a disease with no cure and a death rate of 70 percent.
Some experts predict that more than 200,000 Ebola victims by the end of 2014, with more than 100,000 dead.
This is — as yet — far from the fabled epidemics of history, such as influenza after the First World War, which infected 500 million people, of whom 50 to 100 million died, or the Black Death of 1346-50, which wiped out between 30 and 70 percent of the population of Europe and may have caused up to 75 million deaths worldwide over a longer period.
Indeed, some clever commentators say that if you live in Asia, Europe or the United States, it’s better to stop worrying about Ebola and get a shot against flu, a more common disease, which kills upwards of 250,000 people a year.
But health leaders are desperately worried. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, who observed firsthand the effects of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, warned that Ebola is “unquestionably the most severe acute public health emergency in modern times.”
Outside the health community, however, there is a failure to understand how dire the threat from Ebola is to the world and our civilization.
In the U.S. this month, it was clear that global action had stepped up a gear. U.S. media networks were reporting minute by minute on the life and death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first traveler known to have carried the Ebola virus into the United States. The New York Times front page was packed with news about Duncan and about the nurse who caught Ebola caring for him.
World Bank President Jim Kim called a global Ebola Summit in Washington and, by teleconference, with Africa.
“Our people are dying,” pleaded Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma on the telephone link.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that Ebola, threatened to become another global pandemic on the same scale as AIDS.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a 20-fold increase in international aid to fight Ebola.
The World Bank estimated that Ebola could cost the affected African countries more than $32 billion by the end of next year. From already “very serious,” the damage could become “catastrophic” to fragile countries like Liberia.
World Bank president Kim explained why Ebola is potentially devastating for African countries: “The international community now must act on the knowledge that weak public health infrastructure, institutions and systems in many fragile countries are a threat not only to their own citizens but also to their trading partners and the world at large.
“The enormous economic cost of the current outbreak to the affected countries and the world could have been avoided by prudent ongoing investment in health systems strengthening.”
Margaret Chan added: “I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries. I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.”
Ebola has been around for a long time. Yet only when the disease was brought to the shores of the U.S. and Europe — long after hundreds of Africans were dead — did powerful world leaders wake up to the danger that Ebola posed to their own comfortable lives.
It would be cynical to blame global media for highlighting the disease only when a single case in the U.S. brought the savage news home.
The BBC, CNN and internationally minded newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian had reported for weeks about the progress of Ebola in Africa. But it did not get front-page attention because of the clamor of other immediate crises — from the Middle East and Ukraine to the China seas.
The danger of Ebola is that it is insidious. It is not as contagious as bird flu or common diseases like measles because it requires close contact and bodily fluids for transmission. But its incubation period means that when it is diagnosed as Ebola, it is too late to stop it in the absence of a ready vaccine.
When a doctor from the U.S. was medivacked home from Africa and treated with experimental drugs, which saved his life, questions were asked about why these drugs were not rushed to Africa to treat poor dying victims. But the new drugs are experimental and there are not enough doses.
As Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” noted, “Ebola is an ingenious virus. To fight it, we need to be just as ingenious.”
Sadly ingenuity in devising new drugs costs money, and the victims of Ebola have typically been too poor to interest the big pharmaceutical companies.
It is easier for Big Pharma and their bankers to make billions from mergers and acquisitions to create new corporate giants and then spin off their individual parts to realize their “true value” for rich shareholders.
Scientists at leading universities, rather than Big Pharma, are fighting the battle against Ebola and tricky diseases.
Ebola is thus an indictment of Big Pharma and the modern corporate capitalist preoccupation with short-term profits. It is an indictment of the governance in too many poor African countries, where pervasive corruption pushes the poor and vulnerable into poverty, disease and death.
It is an indictment of the narrow, often nationalistic, short-term vision of too many leaders of rich countries — from the U.S. to European Union, China, India and Japan. The response of the West has been to try to keep Ebola out of their backyards.
But questioning and quarantining passengers from West Africa is self-defeating if they have already brought the disease onto the aircraft. Canceling flights to the affected areas means that aid and doctors cannot get in.
Sadly, watching the U.S. midterm election campaign, I see no understanding among any of the political leaders of our common plight: They are all fighting grubby money campaigns to get elected.
From Asia, I see little global understanding in China, where President Xi Jinping is consumed with establishing his personal control, not only in Beijing but in the outer marches of his empire, including Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which was promised an autonomy that Xi is squeezing.
I see no understanding of one world in Japan, where political leaders are preoccupied with whitewashing the history of their grandfathers and restoring the national pride that the Western Allies humiliated.
Who will speak for Humanity?
It is time for a holistic approach, a long-term global economic plan that includes proper health care schemes even in the weakest countries, as well as aid, development and environmental programs that understand John Donne’s cry that “no man is an island” — we are all part of the same fragile planet Earth, which is as strong as its weakest citizen.
This unfortunately is far from any leader’s political agenda. Today, Ebola; tomorrow, global warming; next week, something worse.
Kevin Rafferty previously worked at the World Bank and was in Washington this month watching the Ebola Summit.
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