I first wrote this article a month ago. Having studied the history of epidemics at Yale Online (WHY would a sane person do that?) when the latest Ebola outbreak occurred I felt like those rare times in school when I actually had the answer: “I know this one!”
Original article updated: America is a nation prone to panics, she is anxious and invests a lot of time and energy trying to identify the designated devil. Whole industries of conspiracy-unraveling and terrorist-identifying prosper from the very fears they continuously stir up. Fear makes us stupid; that’s a scientific fact. So fight fear-stupidity whenever you can.
“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”-Gandhi
So Ebola has come to America. Will America fly into spasms of fear, each subgroup lashing out at its favorite devil? Are Middle Eastern terrorists using biological warfare? Is Big Gubmint culling the herd? Is the Illuminaughty at it again? Did global warming cause it?
Or is this is a disease, like diseases all throughout human history, which may or may not spread widely, depending on how well we handle it? Spoiler alert: It’s that last one.
You can get some historical perspective for free online at Yale Open Courses, “The History of Epidemics.” You can watch the video lectures or read the transcripts. I did this course last year and became interested in Ebola, “That’s one to keep an eye on, I thought.” Or perhaps you do not have 25 hours to spare, in which case here are some salient points:
Some diseases are prettier than others. For example, tuberculosis, which was a major cause of death right up until 1944, was considered a classy disease. People slowly grew pale, often went to woodsy sanitariums for quarantine and just “romantically” faded away.
Smallpox, which killed up to ninety-five percent of indigenous peoples after the Europeans landed, was ugly-but I won’t describe it because it has supposedly been eradicated by vaccines and you will never have to worry about it. Europeans were not wiped out by it because they had kept livestock for a long time and the milder cowpox gave them some immunity.
Bubonic plague, which killed 25-30 million people in the 14th century, or 30-60% of the European population, was grotesque. Entire cities were quarantined and Daniel Defoe wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year” about the quarantine of London in 1665. Pretty grim reading, except for this bright spot: when everyone decided they were walking dead men anyway, all class distinctions broke down and people became friendly and light-hearted. Bubonic plague lives on in certain populations of rodents in the United States and elswhere, but antibiotics usually cure it.
The Spanish flu of 1918 actually killed more people than all the people who died in WWI, 50-100 million, or 3-5% of the world’s population. In fact, I suspect epidemics have had more impact on the course of history than our various Napoleons.
So should we worry about Ebola? It’s been around for awhile, first diagnosed in 1979. Doctors in moon suits have managed to restrict outbreaks to small regions of Africa. But it has escaped. It has escaped for a very human reason.
Imagine people in moon suits taking away your loved ones and you never see them again, not even to bury them? Burial rites can spread the infection, so the moon-suited ones were doing the right thing, medically, without considering the human emotions involved.
They think Ebola survives in wild animals, which West Africans readily eat. Bush meat is sold in local street markets, but it is not going to show up at your local supermarket, so the only way you can get Ebola is to be exposed to an infected person’s body fluids. We know how to isolate infections in America, it should be contained, unless some heroes decide to rescue an Ebola patient from the clutches of (insert favorite devil here) and set them free into the general population.
Ebola is an ugly disease and 90% fatal with no cure. I follow several conspiracy sites to gauge the public mood and I see the anti-Pharma rage machine is already kicking in. Do not trust the CDC, they say. Swine flu was a hoax, they say. The World Health Organization is an arm of the New World Order, they say.
Sometimes the conspiracy guys are right. The CIA was using polio vaccinators in Pakistan to gather information and when the locals found out, the vaccinators were assassinated. Now kids are getting polio again, but you can’t trust the health workers, they say.
Educate yourself and refuse to fear because fear makes you stupid. Wash your hands frequently. Shut up about vaccines and antibiotics until this has passed. I would have died in childhood without antibiotics and I remember children in iron lungs from polio. Do you think “the gubmint” invented Bubonic Plague?
Should you worry about Ebola? Not yet, but you should keep an eye on it. And be very glad this is not 1600.
Center for Disease Control: Ebola (updated frequently)
History of Epidemics (If nothing else, this will make you glad you live now and not 1600.
Documentary: Ebola, the Plague Fighters