In literary terms, the death of Patrick Sawyer in Lagos marks a plot point in the Ebola narrative, the kind of event that ends a chapter and makes readers both eager and afraid to turn the page.
That's a key reason why Ebola is in the news at all: it's a classic "McGuffin,' the basis of an exciting and convoluted story. Other diseases sicken and kill far more people around the world, but we've developed psychological immunity to them. Ebola gets past our defences: it's hemorrhagic, it can destroy your internal organs, it's most contagious when people care for the victim, and it threatens the very foundations of society.
The present outbreak, beginning early this year, gave us a good opening hook: the small beginning. In an obscure corner of an obscure country, a disease has shown up where it has no business being. We spent a lot of time this spring speculating on its origins; bats, migrating from deforestation in central Africa, seem to be he likeliest source, but that idea developed so early in the story that it's almost certain to be refuted by some dramatic discovery later in the story. That's how plots work.
Any story is anecdotal evidence for a particular view of the world, and sometimes we'll cling to that view even if it costs us our lives. For most of us in the west, Ebola is anecdotal evidence for the superiority of western medicine and public-health principles.
For many people in West Africa, Ebola is anecdotal evidence that their own social customs have failed—evidence that many simply refuse to believe. Hence the repeated claims by Liberia's president and other West African officials that "Ebola is real"—much like environmentalists arguing with global-warming denialists.
We tell a story by embodying a world view (or competing world views) in our characters, and then subjecting those characters to a series of stressors. Those with the "correct" world view will triumph; those who see the world wrongly will perish, or at least be defeated.
In the Ebola narrative, West African society itself is under stress. Families are arming themselves to retrieve their relatives from hospitals, or hiding cases at home or in the bush. This is not because they're stupid, but because they are struggling to maintain their values and therefore their identities—one of the most powerful motives of all.
And in fairness, western values have not been entirely successful in Africa. With centuries of slavery and economic exploitation to look back on, Africans can be forgiven for seeing Ebola as a pretext for still more exploitation, if not directly by westerners then by their own western-oriented government officials.
A good plot involves a series of increasingly serious problems with unforeseeable outcomes. So we watched Ebola arise in eastern Guinea, then turn up in Conakry. Then Liberia started reporting cases. Sierra Leone seemed mysteriously exempt, but Ebola turned up there as well, and now has more cases than anyone else.
The threat to healthcare workers is another way to ratchet up the tension: the caregivers must armour themselves like Homeric warriors, and like warriors they fall anyway. Some flee their hospitals, or go on strike, or endure rock-throwing mobs. The case of Dr. Umar Khan creates still more anxiety: He's been called a "national hero," so if he dies Sierra Leone will be like the Trojans watching Hector's body being dragged around the city walls by victorious Achilles.
Patrick Sawyer's death has now raised the stakes in this story. The present hot zone is one of small, poor countries. Nigeria is big. If Ebola were to get into the 20+ million residents of Lagos, it might become unstoppable.
With vast oil wealth and equally vast poverty, Nigeria' would undergo and severe test of its social values—and just at a time when it has trouble enough. In the same week that Sawyer died, so did 110 people in a double bombing. Meanwhile Boko Haram rules in the northeast.
When you think things can't get any worse in a story, that's when they get worse. At some point, the hero's ambitious plan is thwarted and he or she is forced to retreat and reconsider. The Ebola denialists (who are the heroes of their own narrative, after all) will have to choose between death and acceptance of foreign values.
We westerners will face our own setbacks as Ebola eludes our countermeasures. Do we have the money, the people, the skills, and the will to suffocate this outbreak? And what does it say about us if we don't?
Ebola holds our attention, but not because it's a serious threat to all humanity. Aedes aegypti is a serious threat, and we ignore it. Ebola is a good story, and we have no psychological antibodies to a good story. It's how we started learning about the world around our first campfires on the ancient veldt, and natural selection has removed those who don't listen to stories.
So we turn the page in fear and anticipation, dreading what comes next but eager for the lessons it will offer us. If we're wise, we'll apply those lessons to many other threats whether they make good stories or not.