In my attempt to look at realistic crisis scenarios which our society could face, some kind of pandemic has always been at the top of my list. With all of the new concern about the spread of Ebola in Western Africa and its recent migration to N. America, I think that this situation needs some specific examination.
Our medical system should be able to take care of any Ebola crisis which may arise. But that’s like saying that our nuclear scientists are capable of taking care of any crisis involving a nuclear power plant. And I give you Three Mile Island as the warning for taking a statement like that too confidently. Our science is capable of doing a lot of things, however human nature and fallibility is still a very strong factor.
I have two concerns about Ebola in North America.
1. Ebola does have a more restricted contagion level as it is only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids. Given that, it is more contagious than AIDS and about on a par with Mononucleosis. (It is more contagious than AIDS because it can be found in bodily fluids other than blood and semen, like saliva, and also because it can sustain itself outside of the body on a physical object far longer than can AIDS.) Given that it is about as contagious as Mono, one might think it relatively safe. After all, as one friend stated, it’s not hard to avoid “making out” with an Ebola patient. Except that we all know that Mono’s distinction as the “kissing disease” is not really accurate. I’ve known many people with Mono, and intimate contact was not how they were exposed. It was more from sneezing or drinking from the same glass. (The reason teenagers are more likely to get Mono is not because they are more indiscriminately intimate, but because their bodies are more susceptible.) Not only that, but medical research shows that 95% of the population tests positive for the Mono virus, but only a small number succumb to Infectious Mononucleosis. So we’ve all been infected by it.
If Ebola is on a par with Mono, then I don’t have much confidence in statements that its contagion level is below a level worth worrying about. As addition proof of this concern, we have the cases in Africa of two doctors and most recently a news camera man who have contracted the disease. All of these people are very likely to have taken all reasonable precautions to protect themselves from infection, and still they contracted the disease.
If this disease ever escaped into an urban setting, attempts to control it would be far superior to what is happening in Africa, but would it be enough.
2. Add to this the sheer incompetence of the hospital that turned away the first America Ebola case, and of the CDC who left an infected room and a possibly infected family unattended for days, until the media finally forced them to do something about it. While we like to think of our emergency response system as being “state of the art”, the sad truth is that it falls quite short. Just look at FEMA. Human ineptitude seems rampant. I’d like to think we’d do better in Canada, -and the SARS response suggests that we would-, but I think I have good reason to be skeptical. Once this epidemic has a foothold, it will be a monumental task to control it.
And so what happens if the proverbial shit hits the fan? Here are the potential consequences, as I see them.
First, there will be a fear of any sort of congregation, which may effect parents willing to send their kids to school, people willing to go shopping and many other things. Stock up on food, water and medications, and make some appropriate plans and arrangements. The situation may develop to a point that you want to isolate yourself.
Second, services may be disrupted. If there is a priority of dealing with an epidemic, hospitals, police and other services will be maxed out. This may lead to some social unrest, to say the least. Deliveries of food and other goods may be interrupted, causing shortages. When there are shortages, and when police services may be preoccupied, there are always people who will want to solve their own problems by giving you problems.
Third, all of this can’t happen without there being an impact on our already delicate economic and financial system. At its worst it is the kind of thing that could easily result in another recession.
Hopefully our society is up to the task of controlling and/or dealing with what is now a clear and present danger. But, as I’ve said before, some prudent and realistic preparation is a good idea.
***And nobody has yet addressed the idea that it is only a matter of time before terrorists see that biological weapons are a lot easier to utilize than explosives. A deliberate ”suicide infector” who purposely evades the safeguards on airlines and airports, would be able to infiltrate our society and possibly contaminate many people. I have no doubt that this will become a problem.