Many years ago when I was a boy, I read a prescient novel by George Stewart called Earth Abides. Written in 1949, it deals with the aftermath of a truly devastating pandemic—as seen through the eyes of a survivor who also happens to be an ecologist.
"Ecology" was barely a word 65 years ago, but Stewart knew enough about it to build his tale on the premise that any species that overpopulates its ecological niche is heading for a crash. Why should we be exempt?
His ecologist hero Isherwood Williams, working in the wilderness, suffers a snakebite that immobilizes him while billions are dying around the world. When he recovers, he returns to the San Francisco Bay Area. A few people are still alive, but Ish realizes many more survived the pandemic only to die thereafter. They were the casualties of "secondary kill," victims of shock, other diseases, or accident.
I haven't re-read the book in 40 or 50 years, but you can see it had an effect on me if I can remember it so well. No doubt this blog is one consequence of that effect.
And it probably influences my view of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as well. As bad as it is, Ebola has officially killed as many people as have died of malaria so far today (HIV/AIDS has killed, as of 5:45 p.m. PST, 3,403).
And yet it has thrown West Africa into a nightmare worse than its years of civil war, and rattled governments around the world. Some poor sick woman from Sierra Leone threw the United Kingdom into a tizzy today as a possible Ebola case; would we know about it if she were down with obvious malaria or HIV?
Adam Smith once observed that "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation"—countries are big, complicated, diverse, and resilient. But the countries of West Africa have been running on fumes for a long time, and Ebola is a hill they may not have the momentum to crest.
It's the "secondary kill" we need to worry about: the people with routine illnesses who can't get help because the local clinic has been deserted. The children who die of malnutrition because their parents have no work, or are trapped behind a quarantine line. The teachers who despair and head for the Mediterranean and a boat to Italy. The orphans adopted by some opportunist warlord and trained to attack the impoverished survivors of the outbreak.
Disruption of the fragile postwar societies of West Africa is easy to achieve and hard to repair. We will be de facto collaborators with the warlords by holding back our support, creating a new quarantine line around the whole region. That is a common response to any threat: seal it off, shrug it off, let it kill some luckless people we don't know, and hope it goes away.
If the secondary kill were limited to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, we might even get away with that response with just the expense of some mad medical saints and the luckless shareholders of West African mining stocks. But secondary kill in Nigeria is another story. Hey, you think gas is expensive now? Wait until Boko Haram is setting the price.
In the old TV series MASH, Hawkeye Pierce once said: "Never let it be said that I didn't do the least I could possibly do." It's a sensible, labour-saving principle. The least work for the most effect is the most elegant solution, and it's why we cut corners.
The grief comes when we try to cut a corner, run a red light, or ignore other people's sorrows, and we learn too late that the least we could do was a lot more than we estimated.
Like any major stressor, Ebola is forcing us to reveal our true selves—good, bad, or mediocre. If we persist in throwing boxes of Band-Aids at West Africa, instead of realizing we and our kids are next, we will be remembered like the Europeans who dealt with the Black Death in the 1340s by murdering their Jewish neighbours.
Ish Williams, in Earth Abides, lives into senility among descendants who wear blue jeans, hammer pennies and dimes into arrowheads, and dread him as "Ish of the hammer." If we don't confront and defeat Ebola and its secondary kill, our descendants will regard us as barbarians too—and we couldn't even make bows and arrows.