People feel naked in the face of the deadly Ebola virus.
Ebola is causing widespread panic. Are these fears justified? Experiences from past disease outbreaks, medical science and diffusion theory suggest that the current hysteria is misplaced.
While the human tragedy is unquestioned, the real epidemic may not be the Ebola virus but the loss of public confidence in government authorities. Such a loss may cause more harm to many more individuals in the future through the combination of prejudice and apathy.
A number of factors are fueling this manic panic. The mortality rates are high and rapid (as the ‘Forbes’ article shows). As yet there is not a vaccine. The source of the virus seems to be due to a species jump (as with SARS); in Ebola’s case, fruit bats. The public’s current fascination with vampires and Dracula helps not one lite bit. More worrying is the continuing uncertainty as to whether the spread of the virus is physical or has transmuted into being air-borne. Debate on ‘You tube’ debate is intense.
These factors of fear are being compounded by a general and increasing lack of trust in public authorities and sources of information. There are good grounds for concern, but maybe not hysteria.
The loss of public confidence has been made worse by the combination of insufficient or conflicting information. Worse still has been official lethargy and confusion. The present outbreak was already reported in the general press in January 2014, which meant it was a well-developed problem on-the-ground in West Africa during 2013. The site of naked women, men and children – the victims of official lethargy have failed to move politicians into action. The Ebola virus has spread from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and now to Nigeria as this interactive map and timeline reveals. From rural locations to thronging cities. Viruses require hosts to survive and spread– cities provide ideal locations. Medicins sans Frontières believe the risks are huge and have stated the situation is “out of control”. The unfolding events suggest a scandal at many levels. The WHO has a great deal to answer for. The UK government’s decision to screen arriving passengers achieves little – except to confirm the growing disaffection with government. Better to screen departures and monitor carefuklly passenger movements after arrival.
Diffusion theory clear sets out how any disease (or idea) can spread. It follows a certain pattern. Researchers at Oxford University have demonstrated the importance of distance in this process. In the past trading routes linking economic centres provided the conduits: trading goods and diseases. The fears of bubonic plague remain embedded in the public’s collective memory as the trading ships form Constantinople to Genoa brought the “black death” to Europe in the 14th century. Another important aspect of diffusion is often described as an S-curve, as explained in Justin Jenk’s blog on adoption rates and the effect of time. In this current Ebola outbreak the ‘Wall St Journal’ has developed an excellent graphic.
Viral and bacterial evolutions and diffusion are well understood. The public health authorities’ reaction to the Influenza pandemic 0f 1919-21, the Smallpox epidemic of 1947 and the Polio challenge of the 1950s demonstrate that western societies have been able to deal with such threats in the past.
What the current Ebola outbreak exposes is the worrying observation that perhaps modern society has passed its peak and its inability to deal with such crises. While we may be technically more capable we seem to lack the ethical and political will to act; the London School of Economics has captured the essence of this debate.
Economics rule for big pharma and vested interests. Reports from Guinea suggest that cures are available, Yet modern concerns with regard to “human screening” have prevented effective and timely trials. Certain conspiracy theorists suggest more sinister reasons.
The economics of this and other diseases are crippling to the national economies of West Africa. South Africa remains burdened by the continuing destructive effects of its HIV crisis to its economy and society.
Human tragedy to tens of thousands has been created by the current Ebola outbreak as well as shown destructive effects on society and the economy. Public confidence is also the victim.
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Justin Jenk is business professional with a successful career as a manager, advisor, investor, entrepreneur and board member. He is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard. Justin can be found at justinjenk.com