Got Ebola yet? Early symptoms are very difficult to distinguish from either winter flu or, indeed, a particularly bad hangover. Bit feverish, aches and pains, sore throat and so on. Only when you start to bleed from the eyeballs should you worry a bit: that’s never happened before with Jack Daniels. It was the African bloke huddled up on the tube, I would reckon, the one who kept coughing. I knew I shouldn’t have sat near an African.
One or two clinical experts have been likening the Ebola virus to HIV. They seem to me similar more in a sociological sense. I remember those days when people avoided being in close proximity to homosexuals for reasons other than their appalling taste in music, or their moustaches. The mid-1980s were a time of frit panic and a concomitant nastiness directed towards a community which could genuinely, back then, be described by that now ubiquitous and debased word ‘vulnerable’. We are experiencing the same sort of panic right now and much of the same nastiness. If you doubt this, check out the reader comments on every story the Daily Mail runs about Ebola. Ban them all from coming anywhere near the country! Horrible, bat-munching savages. If they’re here, kick them out! And so on, ad infinitum.
The threat to the average Brit of contracting Ebola is substantially less than the risk of being hit by lightning, and will remain so, I suspect. Incidentally, the clinical comparison with HIV is of interest: both viruses are easily capable of mutating so as to become more effective. More effective for themselves, not out of viral malevolence, of course. Indeed the suspicion is that, like HIV, Ebola will become less and less lethal, eventually settling down at a death rate of around 5 per cent (by which time we may have an effective and quick vaccination, which we are some distance from acquiring at the moment). The less lethal a virus, the more successful it is in its own terms of replicating.
There are already signs that the death rate in the current epidemic is coming down, even in those benighted West African countries which are singularly ill-equipped to deal with such an outbreak. Ebola, then, may eventually take its place in the pantheon of illnesses which are very scary in the abstract, but which we have little chance of catching and which can be treated with reasonable success. A disease which kills poor black people.
And this, I think, is why we have got our approach to the current outbreak a little awry. It seems to me that the government’s sudden galvanisation on this issue, its dire warnings and promise of action, are motivated not by the real threat of the UK being hit by an Ebola epidemic — something which is surely beyond the bounds of possibility — but by the salacious and somehow weirdly gleeful reportage in our morning newspapers, and on our television screens. Having insisted — rightly, in my opinion — that screening incoming passengers from West Africa to British airports would be costly and ineffective, the government is now saying that it will indeed do some screening, while quietly still admitting that the screening will be pretty much useless, all things considered. One estimate I saw suggested that only 8 per cent of visitors from West Africa would be screened for the virus. Meanwhile, we are being whipped into a frenzy. The hospitals are not prepared for a mass outbreak! We’re all going to die! Well of course they are not prepared for this ‘mass outbreak’, because it will not happen and they have other stuff to worry about. And we’re not all going to die.
I am not remotely blasé about Ebola in general; only about its potential threat to our own comfortable and insulated lives. I am old enough to remember the first reported outbreak, in Zaire back in 1976, and thus being appalled when it returned in the mid-1990s. Back then, it battled for scare-story space with another arriviste horror, ‘necrotising fasciitis’, which popped up in our hospitals and turned the flesh of patients to the consistency of cheese. That naughty little monkey is still with us, although comparatively very few people have succumbed.
We seem to adore working ourselves up over these sci-fi biological nightmares, and we tend to lose a sense of proportion in the process. We become gripped by the ghoulish weirdness of each illness, by the bizarre symptoms and by the thrill of an existential threat hovering in Damoclean fashion just out of our eyesight. And it warps our judgment. The government’s allegedly ‘belated’ response is evidence of that.
What we should have done, and should still do right now, is concentrate our efforts and money on battling the outbreak where the outbreak is actually taking place. In short, in some of the worst countries in the world: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that wonderful new creation South Sudan and — most worry-ingly of all — Nigeria.
This is only a guess, but I would hazard that the reason the current outbreak has become so widespread is that people move around a lot more than they did back in 1976, or even the 1990s. We really do not want the disease spreading throughout over-populated Nigeria, not for their sake nor for ours. A couple of medical charities I have spoken to were highly critical of the initial response of western governments and, in particular, the World Health Organisation; ineffectual and too little, too late were the gist of the criticisms. Ebola is a real threat in West Africa and we have done very little about it — no more than we have devoted ourselves to combatting the two really big killers in the same continent, Aids and malaria. But then they, too, are diseases which these days afflict poor black people.