LONDON – As the Ebola virus ravaged West Africa in 2014, civilian air traffic in and out of the most affected countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia almost ceased. That decision, however, was not taken by international health officials. Instead, it came from airline cleaners and other staff, who refused to have anything to do with planes in and out of the region.
In many respects, the 2013-16 West African Ebola outbreak, believed to have caused around 11,000 deaths from 28,000 cases, was very different to the current COVID-19 epidemic. The diseases are different — Ebola killed roughly one in four of those it infected. So are the areas affected, and their connections to the outside world. The forests and cities of West Africa were much less central to the world economy than China, where the outbreak is already seen having a significant impact on global growth.
As with Ebola, however, the world is already responding by attempting to completely isolate the affected areas, regardless of whether or not that is something the science yet deems necessary. Much of that is down to outright fear, with alarming signs that it might sometimes be deliberately exacerbated to stoke tensions and alarm.
In Ukraine last week, dozens of protesters attacked buses carrying evacuees from China as they were bought to a hospital in the town of Novi Sanzhary, where they were to be held in quarantine for 14 days. Ukraine’s security services said a fake email claiming to be from the health ministry said some evacuees had already contracted the virus, something they said was simply not true.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on protesters to show empathy, reminding them the evacuees were “human beings.” One of the things most striking about the epidemic so far, however, has been how fast countries have been willing to rip up what would often be deemed basic human rights in their wish to control its spread.
To what extent this has been truly justified may never really be known — although if worldwide spread can be limited it will almost certainly be seen justified. That would likely make it the model for any future crises. China has repeatedly changed the way in which it categorizes and counts cases, but says the number so far exceeds 77,000 with 2,663 deaths.
Ironically, that relatively low fatality rate — around 3 percent — is one of the characteristics that makes containing the virus so difficult.
Many of those infected have relatively mild symptoms, some may not report it at all. Still, that brings with it the risk of a pandemic that could kill several million — leaving governments unusually open to doing whatever they believe is necessary to stop it.
In China itself, where millions have now often found themselves quarantined at once, kept either in their houses or makeshift rapidly constructed camps and hospitals, the government has had no qualms in showcasing just how draconian it can be.
Given the nature of China’s government, particularly in the last few years, that’s hardly a surprise. But Western states such as Britain and Australia, however, have also been taking often unprecedented steps to ensure those who have traveled in affected regions are kept away from others.
As with the 2015 Ebola outbreak — as well as other epidemics of much-feared disease — one aspect that is particularly striking is the speed with which countries and companies are willing to lock down economic and business activity in the hope of halting a wider pandemic. Bookings with airlines show passengers avoiding huge swathes of Asia well outside affected parts of China, while the most affected Hubei province now has almost no public or private transport travelling to it at all.
Insiders say that after a high-profile outbreak aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, cruise firms are dramatically scaling back operations in Asia.
The Diamond Princess has been the scene of one of the largest outbreaks outside China — and another ship, the Westerdam, was denied permission to dock in five countries despite having not a single proven case.
Such worries are hardly new — the word “quarantine” comes from the 40-day waiting period mediaeval Italian ports would impose on visiting ships during times of plague to prove they were uninfected. What that means in the modern era of “just-in-time” supply chains and mass population movement, however, has yet to be truly tested. Events in Ukraine suggest it may already be exacerbating existing frustrations and unease over the implications of a mobile, interconnected, multinational world.
In the absence of scientific data and surveillance, firms and countries appear increasingly prone to profiling by nationality. Some cruise ships have begun refusing to board individuals with Chinese or Hong Kong passports — while in Hong Kong, worries about the disease crossing from the mainland have become yet another source of political division following months of protest against Beijing last year.
Where that ends is by no means clear. Pockets of disease in South Korea and Japan suggest that for all the efforts in mainland China, international spread may yet be inevitable. What that brings with it politically, culturally and economically we do not yet know.
Peter Apps is a Reuters writer on international affairs.