Far as we are from the dank jungles that gave birth to it, the Ebola virus may have struck us as too foreign and too far away to concern us. And while it killed small numbers of villagers in West Africa, it was only missionaries and workers of humanitarian agencies who had any idea of what was happening. As with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the world took notice only when the new disease jumped from Africa to high-risk groups across the planet before threatening the general population.
The truth is that US President Barack Obama did announce emergency assistance for West Africa (dispatching 3,000 troops to help) long before cases of the hemorrhaging fever were reported in the United States and Europe. But the reporting on the issue was still subdued. On Wednesday, however, a man who had been afflicted in Liberia died in Texas, while yesterday a Spanish nurse was fighting for her life, having caught Ebola while treating a missionary who had returned to Spain, fatally infected with the disease. Two American doctors who fell ill while in Africa were treated successfully with experimental drugs but the Texas and Spanish cases show how dangerous the virus is, even with the best treatment. The World Health Organization puts the mortality rate at 50 percent. (Last night, reports of a British citizen dying of Ebola in Skopje were not confirmed.)
Sometimes our age seems to encompass all historical eras – from the Nobel Prize awarded on Wednesday to scientists who devised a way to study living cells under a microscope to jihadis decapitating hostages. Suddenly, a new plague brings home the understanding that however different our civilizations may be, however far we live from each other, we share a common fate and common dangers. Athens in the Golden Age of Pericles and Constantinople in Justinian’s time suffered just two recorded cases of major plagues. In Europe, the Black Death killed more than 30 percent of the continent’s population between 1347 and 1750.
If the Ebola virus is not contained quickly, it may become even more dangerous than AIDS. With Ebola there is no protection – such as condoms or abstinence from sex. People are social animals, and cannot be isolated from each other. Ebola, which is transmitted through touch, becomes a mortal danger. For this reason, Liberia has had to postpone elections that were scheduled for next week. The virus infects us by exploiting civilization – our political and cultural dimension. Perhaps its greatest weakness is that it is so virulent that it undermines its own expansion, knocking down people so quickly that it limits further contagion.
To avert a pandemic, we need quick and decisive measures at every level, from villages to international organizations. Now we shall see if humanity can deal with a microscopic organism in our time with greater success than in the past.