Less than 700 years ago, a third of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death in five years. And less than a century ago, an outbreak of influenza known as the Spanish Flu killed between three and five percent of the world’s population, within the two years following the end of World War 1.
Since the atomic bombs that concluded World War 2, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, it has been all too easy for suburbanites within the Western world to live in the easy illusion that we are no longer subject to such plagues, wars or natural disasters.
But meanwhile, in what sociologists name the Global South, catastrophe has continued.
Throughout the last century, in the shadows of the globalised world of capitalism, disaster has almost continued unabated—with near constant fighting in central Africa leading to casualties akin to a world war; man-made famines in Ukraine and China killing tens of millions; as well as genocides in Cambodia, Armenia and Rwanda, to name but a few of the seemingly unrelenting calamities that befall humanity.
Yet, for half a century or so, the developed world has grown comfortable with the illusion that the time for such disasters has passed, owing to a surfeit of modern technology and science. But every now and then, a crack appears in this division between the modern, developed world of sanitised orderliness and foreign chaos, reminding us we all share the same precarious existence.
Today it is the Ebola virus that is piercing that wall. Ebola is a particularly frightening disease. Within days of exposure, symptoms include vomiting, fever and unexplained bleeding. While between 10% and 50% of Ebola patients recover and survive the virus, it is still not fully understood why some people have this resistance while others do not.
A horrible death
Most human beings who are infected will die a horrible death.
Ebola has always lurked in the global consciousness as a disease to be used as an icon for foreign nightmares—a disease that happens to poor people far away.
But now, as it becomes a regional contagion in West Africa, having already killed well over 2 000 people, and as it threatens to go global, Ebola forces us to look into a world we too easily ignore—a world of poverty, underdevelopment, and states hovering on the edge of failure.
In a certain sense, the world of Ebola, a world of forced quarantines, black market food and tainted bush meat, is now everybody’s world.
For in a globalised age of international trade and aid, all linked by air travel, the Internet and supply chains, Ebola stands as a stark reminder of the residual vulnerabilities of a hyperconnected world still riddled with potential plagues.
This disease that causes human beings to bleed to death thus teaches us that even in our technological age, there remains an urgent need for the application of common, ancient wisdom to some of our most intractable problems,
particularly those faced by the poor in Africa.
And leading epidemiologists are now warning us that this virus may no longer simply be Africa’s problem, but rather a global one.
The World Health Organization has cautioned that from October, it is likely there will be thousands of new Ebola transmissions per week in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Writing in The New York Times, Michael Osterholm, one the world’s foremost epidemiologists, warns that such a rapid increase in new infections could have some horrifying implications.
Connected with the wider world
First, new infections mean Ebola has a strong chance of gaining traction in one of Africa’s new mega-cities such as Lagos or Kinshasa. Previously, Ebola was unable to outrun the casualties it struck down in rural areas, but as urbanisation has escalated in Africa, so too are cities—all of which are connected by travel and trade with the wider world—ever more vulnerable to epidemics. Second, a high rate of infection has the potential to alter the disease for the worse. When a person is infected with Ebola, the virus is genetically replicated, allowing for mistakes in replication and thus mutation of the virus.
Osterholm writes, “[This] second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly, but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.
“The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1 000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.”
Osterholm argues that this threat means Western governments cannot simply ignore Ebola as an African issue. Unless bold action is taken, Ebola does have the potential to become another continent-wide, or global, Black Death, transmissible in the air you breathe on a plane, a taxi or, crucially, in a hospital. (The threat of Ebola is keeping many Africans away from hospitals and thus treatment for a host of other conditions such as Aids and malaria.)
Such bold action would possibly entail a United Nations Security Council resolution to place the UN in a command position, funded by Western governments, to fight the disease in western Africa.
Indeed, presidents of West African states are already calling for an escalation in foreign aid.
Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently sent a letter to United States President Barack Obama, pleading for American support.
“I am being honest with you when I say that at this rate, we will never break the transmission chain and the virus will overwhelm us,”she wrote.
Liberia, having been founded by freed American slaves, is seen by many in the world as being America’s responsibility in this crisis —by the same logic, Britain has been supporting its former colony, Sierra Leone, while France has been sending aid to Guinea.
This action already demonstrates the level of concern the international community is beginning to share at the prospect that an Ebola pandemic may not be impossible.
To understand both Ebola and this growing dread, it is crucial to understand first the
context in which Ebola thrives.
Perhaps the leading vector of the virus is the bat, an animal believed to be a carrier of the virus without being itself affected.
The typical chain of infection would involve either the droppings, or the leftover food, of an infected bat being eaten by other animals that then in turn become infected themselves. The virus can then jump to humans either when a human eats an infected animal, or comes into contact with a bodily fluid of an infected animal.
Once a human is infected, the virus continues to be spread in the same way, via bodily fluids.
According to researchers, what makes West Africa so vulnerable to Ebola is its network of diminishing forests.
This is the case for two apparent reasons.
The first is that as natural forests are sold off to industrial loggers, or are chopped down by locals owing to the ever increasing demand for firewood, human beings are driven into closer contact with the animals that live in such forests, including the fruit bats that are thought to be Ebola’s leading carrier.
In Liberia, it is estimated that more than half of its rainforest has been cut down, while Guinea’s rainforest is less than a fifth of its original size.
As deforestation penetrates these previously highly remote areas—areas that function as the wellspring for exotic disease—simply touching an animal carcass may set off an outbreak of Ebola.
This is exacerbated by the fact that many of these newly cultivated areas are used for mining, an industry that in turn uses migrant labour, heightening the risk of the disease spreading from its typical rural setting to urban areas.
The second reason for the risks posed by the forest network is that these forests are the chief source of protein for a large number of people—protein that comes in the form of bush meat.
Bush meat is meat derived from animals that are not reared agriculturally. When eating bush meat, one could be eating antelope, crocodile or even gorilla. The problem is that bush meat in these regions runs a great risk of being tainted by Ebola.
Equally, whenever human beings eat primates such as chimpanzees or gorillas, there is a heightened exposure to a myriad of diseases owing to the genetic similarity (and thus susceptibility to similar diseases) between our species.
Solution seems simple
At first glance, therefore, the solution to outbreaks of Ebola seems simple: stop deforestation and the practice of eating bush meat.
Such a solution fails to take heed of the reasons such practices have become so widespread in the first place.
The timber industry in West Africa supports a large number of households, while the charcoal industry derived from deforestation provides over 80% of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa with a renewable energy source.
Meanwhile, any ban on the hunting and trading of illegal bush meat is simply unenforceable, for the simple reason that too many people rely on bush meat as a crucial component of their diet.
This is the view of Robert Nasi, Deputy Director-General of the Center for International Forestry Research. “In rural parts of the Congo Basin... 30 to 80% of the protein intake of the population comes from these wild animals... So you cannot tell the people to stop eating bush meat unless you provide them an alternative.”
It must be noted that the above statistics are taken from a situation in which approximately 95% of the said bush meat is already illegal under existing state laws.
Some bush meat hunters are clearly criminals—such as those hunting elephant for trade in both meat and ivory. But a large majority are simply people providing food to millions of families. To snuff out such a vital supply without careful thought and consideration is simply non-viable.
Nasi also asserts that replacing bush meat with a conventional Western meat supply would create problems just as great as the existing status quo.
“An alternative would be domestic livestock—cattle. The problem is that if you take the amount of bush meat that is eaten in the Congo Basin, which is about 5 million tonnes per year—that is the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil or the European Union. This means that if you want to produce this amount of cattle in the region, in the Congo Basin, you have to deforest 20 to 25 million hectares of forest.”
This does not mean that the current situation is sustainable, even if one disregarded the vulnerabilities of such a system to an Ebola epidemic. Nasi notes that populations of all bush meat species are falling.
“The crisis for me is not only the fact that some very important animals or very precious animals are killed. [It’s] the fact that even the small ones, the rodents, are killed and they are not replaced enough. So we are going to have a serious problem in terms of food security.”
Stunting of children
Falling populations in turn has important consequences for societies that depend on such meat for their dietary requirements.
“We have data that shows there is a very high correlation between the availability of bush meat in people’s diets and the stunting of children in the Congo Basin.
In the forest area where people have enough bush meat, the occurrence of stunting is almost nil, 10%. In the forest margin where people are more numerous and they have hunted most of the bush meat to extinction, the occurrence of stunting is 60%.
“With all of this in mind, it is clear that the simple criminalisation of bush meat can be no solution to the problem of Ebola. In fact, if anything, criminalisation may exacerbate the problem, as it ensures the supply chain of vast amounts of meat remains in shadow. Its patterns and its safety cannot be accurately studied or quantified, as most hunters and traders are understandably hesitant to supply any information to researchers.”
Such research would not only be crucial in helping to lessen the possibility of future Ebola outbreaks, but equally crucial to solving the problem of the unsustainable harvesting of rainforests for bush meat which threatens both a variety of endangered animals as well as the food supply of millions of people.
Nasi himself has a few ideas as to the direction that possible solutions to the problem of food security could take. One idea would be to allow the hunting of more resilient species such as various antelope and porcupine, while banning the hunting of vulnerable species. Another possible solution would be to closely regulate the sale of bush meat with the goal of eradicating the consumption of bush meat as delicacies in areas where domestic sources of meat are readily available.
The former proposal could also help to alleviate the risk of Ebola infection via bush meat, as it is believed that vulnerable species such as gorillas have more chance of being carriers of the virus.
In agreement with such proposals, Nasi’s colleague, the Director-General of CIFOR, Peter Holmgren, argues that there are still too many gaps in our knowledge of bush meat supply chains and Ebola outbreaks to undertake sweeping changes to established cultural practices.
“[It] may be that livelihood and nutritional opportunities provided by bush meat for tens of millions of people should not be summarily condemned. Instead, it may well be that political and financial investments in basic healthcare, education and awareness and food safety regulations are more efficient measures. In other words, managing health risks, as well as health opportunities, needs to be considered as one among multiple objectives for forestry and landscapes.”
What is clear, however, is that the developed world, for its own sake, must take a leading role in fostering these crucial investments, and in assisting West African states in developing the capacity to regulate disasters such as the Ebola outbreak in a holistic fashion.
Such an urgency would not only be a function of a worthy altruism, but equally an acknowledgement that the opportunities of globalisation are also tied to the risks of globalisation. Just as modern communications link trade, so too do they inexorably open up pathways for systemic threats.
However, the complexities of the situation mean that any long-term intervention must be cognisant of the tensions between urban development and the problems of deforestation and tenuous food security for the rural poor.
Meanwhile, the testing of ZMapp, an Ebola medicine developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical in consultation with Samaritan’s Purse (a global humanitarian organisation) continues, along with other possible therapies and vaccines.
One can only hope that in the midst of so much human tragedy, the best of technological innovation and prudent cultural and political wisdom will marry to provide viable solutions to one of our planet’s most pressing problems.