This isn't the first time I've followed Ebola; in August 2012, Uganda was dealing with an outbreak that seemed pretty alarming. But West Africa's is far larger in scope and scale, and poses more questions with answers we're not sure we want to hear.
In 2012 the question was whether Uganda could seal off the outbreak before it spread across the country. The answer was yes, partly because Uganda has a relatively good health infrastructure and had dealt with the disease before. The cases were largely confined to a few rural areas, which made it easier to smother.
This time, as we've learned today, the outbreak began as long ago as last December, and smouldered unnoticed in a remote region of Guinea for weeks, spreading from one place to another. Not until February did it become noticed by local authorities. I think my first post on it must have been on March 20, when it was still an "unknown disease" (something like the first reports on cholera in Haiti in October 2010).
It's easy, in the rush of posting from the increasing news stream, to forget what happened back then, almost six months ago. But I see some recurring elements in the way we in Flublogia have responded.
Starting as a handful of sites devoted to H5N1 avian flu back around 2005-06, Flublogia has expanded into a kind of online immune system, a network of bloggers, tweeters, journalists, health experts, and agencies around the world. (I like to think we're like the Capitoline geese, whose cackling roused the early Romans to an Etruscan attack.)
Whether we realize it or not, we're part of an arms race between us and emerging diseases. Every time the diseases make a breakthrough—the H1N1 pandemic, H7N9, MERS, now Ebola—reinforcements materialize out of cyberspace. Every outbreak has faced a growing corps of bloggers, journalists, and working scientists who find this medium a useful way to find and share information. (I figure we were promoted from camp followers to irregular troops when WHO started tweeting.)
Every outbreak has taught me again how powerful this medium is, and how weak. One reason why I keep doing this is not to be the morbid bearer of bad news, but to see how we can handle information in a crisis. It's a strictly amateur interest; I lack the technical computer skills and systems training to grasp the principles at work in Flublogia.
A key point is that we are almost entirely creatures of Google. Without its search algorithms, I couldn't set up alerts for keywords, or personalize my news feed, or track down old scientific papers. But Google's astonishing power poses a problem: How do you fill teacups from a firehose? How do you select reports that would have real value to readers looking for usable information, not just disease porn?
That's where my own ignorance comes to my rescue. Lacking any kind of medical training (and let's tactfully ignore my grades in Columbia's mandatory science courses), I have to choose my sources cautiously and conservatively. The bigger the authority, the more I appeal to it.
However, even an English major can be a useful Flublogian. The old expression "Never bullshit a bullshitter" was doubtless coined about us English majors. Close textual analysis of literature gave us a talent for spotting mendacity, whether by overt lie or by covert silence. In my own case, going on to write 11 science fiction and fantasy novels (and teaching undergraduates for 40 years) endowed me with a heightened talent for detecting amateur efforts to deceive.
So I've managed to avoid a lot of online liars, and to question those I can't, especially governments.
The people I call the "grownups" have encouraged me: they're the epidemiologists, virologists, and public-health experts whose expertise I rely on. But like a court jester, I can say rude things when they couldn't possibly comment.
Flublogia has developed a self-reinforcing mechanism: newcomers are welcomed because we are perennially understaffed and in no position to demand a loyalty oath. I can't express my gratitude to the young experts who have walked in and taken charge of one aspect or another of our shared problem. (And at 73, anyone under 65 looks young.)
Flublogia has given these youngsters a chance to contribute that would have been impossible in the pre-web world. I hope it's also advanced their careers; they are bright enough to glow in the dark.
They are also notably female. I've been meaning to write about a post about Flublogia's women, but remembered the disastrous results of the Judgment of Paris: Pick the wrong girl, or forget one, and kiss yourself goodbye. But you know who you are, from the lionesses prowling cyberspace while the lions snooze, to the scientists and medics doing the dirty work and the journos telling us what you've found. Gentlemen, without them we wouldn't even be here to prattle about how much they've contributed.
Flublogia's original blogs have experienced a necessary mission creep, as we got away from Evil Bird Flu OMG It's Gonna Kill Us All to fumbling for a grasp on the social and economic problems that generate all infectious diseases. As our grasp strengthens, we begin to understand the human condition in this unfortunate century, and to glimpse how we might reach the next century without a catastrophic loss of billions of unique human beings.
The more Flublogians who volunteer in this campaign, the better our chances of reaching that destination.