Ebola outbreak: there is no hope for us if we cannot first overcome our striking arrogance

Seems to me, the favoured way of starting an article like this appears to be a harsh reality check presented by way of a difficult-to-fathom collection of numbers. In keeping with that, I could start with a series of shocking statistics about ebola related death rates. But I won’t. Aside from saying that the current death toll stands at something like 4,447, with as many as 10,000 people per-week likely to be infected in various places across the world very soon – whose figures do you trust? – I don’t really feel there is much point. The fact that the word outbreak is now openly being used in both the media and the medical community should tell us everything we need to know. Of course, the definition of outbreak varies depending on the thing that happens to be outbreaking, but in this case we’re talking about a disease that is more expansive in its reach than what medical experts believe to be normal or has historically been the case. Either way, over 8,000 people across our globe are believed to be harbouring this nasty, deadly virus, and there will be more deaths on the way very soon. We can play it cool and manipulate the figures as much as we like, but one aspect of the truth is difficult to argue with: if we were ever expecting ebola, we were looking the other way when it finally arrived. Now it’s here, it’s becoming obvious that if we do know what to do, we’re not in agreement about how to do it, or even if we should bother to at all. Lots of weighing-up is going on, yet some people’s scales are more wonky than others.

By today’s social media and Google-won’t-load-my-page-and-it’s-been-a-full-5-seconds-I’m-considering-going-to-another-network standards, ebola is, of course, nothing particularly new. The mysterious haemorrhagic fever first cropped up back in 1976, in what we now call the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ever since then, it’s more or less silently been wiping out unfortunate poor people who never stood even the remotest chance against ebola to begin with.

Then it came to the west, and people started to actually give a shit.

For me, the worst thing about something like this – aside from the obvious worst thing, which is that innocent people are losing their lives daily in a horrible virus atrocity that cannot be stopped – is just how much there is to think about. And it’s not like that information is forming an orderly queue, either. It seems each facet of it is vitally important for us to not only know right now, but act on, delegate and decide.

Do we start with worrying about closing borders? Or should we focus on a cure? Should we do both simultaneously? Equally, it would seem sensible to accept the fact that ebola is in full-flow and fight the symptoms, rather than just leaving people to rot in a room while we figure out how not to catch it – to accept that only by trying to help those who are sick can we truly understand the thing in its demolition-heavy active state. Keep looking, though, and you tend to see the same thing rearing its ugly head, time and time again: wherever your starting point is, not even the experts in ebola seem to really understand exactly how it can be transmitted. For me, while swiftly dodging the tricky subject of border closing, etc, this is a very good place to start.

Since the outbreak’s beginning, we’ve been told that ebola can do this or does do that. Not possibly, but more or less definitively. For example, it can’t be transmitted through the air – don’t be silly, it doesn’t have wings. It can be transmitted by direct contact, however…whatever that actually means. Aside from stating how ebola can be passed by infected bodily fluids, nobody is keen on specifics here. But in a world where every new day begins with a new contradiction – in the past few days those contradictions have become so striking and obvious and dominant that it is hard not to darkly laugh – it’s no longer possible to have an accurate idea of what we’re talking about. As I type these words, I wonder if ebola can be transmitted through layers of plastic, or if its next mutation will present in different, unexpected symptoms that are entirely invisible to all and utterly without any warning whatsoever.

One look on social media, and across the news, will tell you that steadfast limits have already been set for the ebola virus. In what can only be deemed an act of pure human arrogance and immense scientific indulgence, alleged experts who don’t even understand how precaution-taking-people are getting horribly ill are saying that deaths in the UK are possible but not likely (at the time of writing). Worse, it sounds a lot like these experts haven’t even seen the film Outbreak – if they had I think they’d be much more worried. This comes merely days after ebola claimed various people in other parts of the world where the exact same thing was also said to be true.

Then there’s the evolutionary standpoint, which is downright ugly. To say that viruses have the upper-hand on us would be something of a major understatement. And, in truth, it could – and very likely will, unless I’m being arrogant – genuinely be the thing that kills us all. Viruses don’t care much for limits, and they don’t really ever die, either. The best that can be hoped for a virus is that it will transfer to another less-fortunate species who will then have to deal with it for a few hundred – preferably thousand – years before passing it onto something we consider even less worth having around us. Who knows exactly how the hell ebola got here to the human population. The point is that our magnificent arrogance is standing like a massive brick wall between us and any kind of positive progress.

Nowadays, we are all ebola experts, and that saying could be taken a little more literally than I intended – thanks to the fact that, by the looks of it, the average non-expert person has about as much chance of recognising someone with ebola symptoms as a WHO professional. Not to devalue their (the experts in question) hard work and supreme understanding of what’s going on here, but only a few days ago people seemingly in-the-know were shouting adamant that someone with ebola could not get on a plane without being noticed as an obvious threat by those around them.

That was fine, and it sounded comforting for a while, but then we learned that a nurse had displayed signs of ebola just the day after getting off a flight to the United States. More alarmingly still, the authorities are now monitoring x amount of people who were on that flight for possible ebola symptoms. Thing is, with the influenza season now teetering upon us, it’s going to be tough to tell the difference without dragging each and every one into a booth and performing an awful lot of expensive blood-work.

One of the most irritating things about all this, for me, is that we have seen infections and viruses spread a million times before. Every year we all put as much distance as is possible between those who are sneezing all over the place, and many of us still fail miserably to not become targets. So, in theory, we should be well-practiced for this kind of outbreak, should we not? In a way, when you simplify things, ebola is like the common-cold but a million times worse. Look up the symptoms if you want. Or just watch the film Outbreak.

Finding the reality amongst all the carnage is proving to be more and more difficult as time goes on. Just how deadly is ebola? Just how much should we be worried? Locking down entire countries is a nice idea in theory, but are any of us actually prepared for the result of that? Surely a complete lockdown would be enormously damaging to our economy just as much as everyone else’s. A true, total lockdown might involve nobody coming in or out of an awful lot of countries for a very long period of time. It sounds over-dramatic to say it, but who would deliver the precious ebay goods that many of us constantly bid for, if it got to a stage where only health experts could go in and out? Stop trade and you don’t have much left aside from an awful lot of angry citizens and not much to do. Remember, the internet relies on international commerce. If we do have to stop the wheels turning, it may cripple us, and ebola will still be there to live another day when we re-open the borders. That’s the really aggravating thing about ebola, and the kind of miserable bastard illnesses it hangs around with: ebola, quite literally, has all the time in the world. In fact, it has much more. If the going gets tough and the world does finally explode into stardust, it’ll just transfer to the nearest piece of flying space rock and wait around for a billion years or so until it finds a suitable host. Perhaps one of the most freaky things about viruses is that they always find a host, yet care nothing for finding a host. Ebola, as far as I can see it, is just hanging around, waiting to drain the life out of anyone it comes into contact with and it doesn’t even know it. How do you combat an enemy who does not even know it’s the enemy…a brilliantly adaptable enemy that (probably) doesn’t have a brain and is infatuated with taking something whole and making it zero?

A partial lockdown may be preferable, but is that any better than no lockdown at all? In truth, is there such a thing as a partial lockdown? Or is that like having a partial wee? Try having a partial wee, I dare you. It’ll only end in tears when you walk away. Tears of more than one kind, I tell you that much.

Ebola is now a pop-culture phenomenon. The Jimmy Saville of infectious diseases, if you like. The way we perceive as humans means that we have no choice but to consider ebola a vast enemy that knows only too well what it is doing. Just like Cancer, and all the other horrible fuckers out there that routinely make the human race’s lives a collective misery, ebola is malevolent and knowing and lots of little angry people seen through a microscope and that’s the way we like it – yet if this is a fight, it’s like the hand of a God smacking-out a tiny, defenceless squirrel that was never the one to gather all the nuts. Thinking about ebola this way normalises it and makes it flawed (bringing a low IQ squirrel into it just ridicules the argument, but too late now…). Yet, so far, we haven’t detected too many flaws. That’s because ebola has been around for a very long time already, and it’s had about a million more years than us to evolve. So it doesn’t particularly do flaws, or so it strikes me. It’s a hard thing to remind ourselves of, but we will never catch it up, because by the time we catch up with where it is right now, or even where it was a hundred years ago, it’ll be so far ahead that we’ll be dead in the ground and turned into carbon.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thinking it, but I personally don’t know what to do about all this ebola worry. And I feel like I should do something, seeing as we’re all in this together. One thing is for certain: I will not be volunteering to go and fight ebola. I make no apologises for that, either. I’m scared to death and I have plenty of first-world excuses, so don’t even try me.

So the real question is…what do any of us do? Should we riot and demand to know what the authorities know…if they do, in fact, know anything? Or is the fact that we are being protected actually good for us? Can any of us outside of a very few people actually handle the truth? What if this is the end? Is it good for us to really be aware of what we are fighting?

And about that – there’s a lot of talk about us getting over-excited. Over dramatic. It won’t be the end, it can’t be, we have this under control. That kind of thing.

Now, I hate to break it to these people, but it can be the end, and there probably isn’t a great deal we can do about it if it is. If it’s coming, it’s coming, and no amount of posting over-confident statements on The Guardian’s comments sections is going to change that fact. What’s probably better is to be grateful to and for all those people who have been – and are presently – volunteering to help keep this thing in-check. They are the ones bringing the wall down, even if only in mouse-sized pieces.

There is another side to all this that’s even more troubling, and so far I haven’t read much about it: ebola could just be the warm-up act. The half-decent-but-not-amazing support gig for something far more deadly and catchy and easily transmittable. If that’s the case, we can look forward to one hell of an encore. One we will not be here to see, think or feel about. There will be no refunds, so don’t even bother to ask.

Looking at the symptoms presented by ebola does not make for a very smiley picture, if that really needs to be said. The picture is, instead, extremely dark and very grim. People who get ebola usually die a horrible death which involves lots of blood leaving the body and lots of mess you can’t so much as go near without worrying about contracting the virus yourself. If there is something out there and it is more deadly than ebola, we had better wisen up, and quickly.

So, instead of speculating and turning the other way when we hear something we don’t like the sound of, I say we face up to it. I say we explore what’s being said and listen to every argument fully before we decide it’s invalid or misled – it may be just what saves us, or saves others. Maybe the authorities will listen if enough people question the status quo. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, we are running fast out of time to be arrogant and headstrong and thinking we know everything. Let’s get our bloody heads together. This one could just be a biggie.

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