October 13, 2014
If a person were to arrive from two months in the desert and turn on the western media reporting on Ebola, he or she would conclude that humanity is at a catastrophic crisis point, unable to confront a rampant plague spreading across global borders. Ebola is indeed a terrible death sentence and my sympathies go out to those whose loved ones have succumbed to this brutal disease. My sympathies do not go out to those using this event as an opportunity to spread fear, criticism and despair.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
The numbers reported are, well, statistics, and as we know, we can do whatever we want with such numbers. To date, the death toll stands at around 4000 (although reporting is imprecise), expected to double in a month, and as number wonks have been showing on homemade videos spread virally on social media, compounding these figures every month will get us to a million very quickly. In a purely mathematical world, this is frightening indeed, but it does not take into account how hard it is to transmit the virus, how the increase of education should quickly contain it and that there are limited areas of high vulnerability.
Another important point is how stupid most people are with numbers (outside of the scientific community, too many people buy lottery tickets in the hopes of paying off their credit card debt). 100 deaths (the size of my circle of friends) is frightening; 10,000 deaths (the size of my university) is truly awful. Over a million? That’s just a number and not worth considering any more. Millions die from influenza every year and that is hardly worth a media sniffle unless there is a new strain with an H or an N. What frightens us (at the 10,000 death stage) is that we just don’t know how awful it will be – once we get to the million level, we start having an idea (fear of awful is far worse of an emotion than just plain awful).
The other weakness about statistics is how habituation removes meaningfulness. Ebola deaths are fresh statistics (with a great unknown factor to haunt our thinking). The more these numbers multiply and fly at us, the less meaningful they become (think of how markets reacted at the start of the US money printing machine called QE III). To put Ebola into perspective, around 3000 people die every day from malaria, mostly infants and mostly in Africa … and these numbers have been fairly consistent since Rachel Carson’s great precautionary principle fail in the 1960s that removed DDT from the health service disease eradication arsenal. Half a century later – after tens of millions of easily preventable deaths – we have become bored with the numbers. They don’t mean anything today (except to the parents who bury their young). Sadly we could stop all malaria deaths in a heartbeat if the eco-religious would just admit their mistake about banning DDT.
When risk managers meet at conferences, the busiest place at break time is not the coffee table, but rather, the toilet. I marvel at how meticulously risk managers soap and scrub their hands the first chance they get since they know that the best offence against viral diseases is a good defence. Knowing how viruses spread, the chemicals needed to disinfect and the availability of good hygiene infrastructure is far more effective in combating the spread of viral diseases than vaccines or medications.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids of those infected with the virus – particularly as the victim is suffering from vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding out. While this strain likely originated from the consumption of bush meat (Ebola is zoonotic), for the most part Ebola thrives in areas with a poor hygiene and sanitation infrastructure.Correcting this is essential in fighting Ebola.
The Risk-Monger has been busy on his Facebook page calling out groups that have used Ebola as an opportunity to further their political campaigns across social media. A classic example comes from “Real Farmacy” on how the facts about Ebola are being hidden from Americans by the corporate media and the government public health officials. Such hatred of industry is highlighted in the suggestion that the decision to do nothing to stop Ebola is motivated by corporate greed: create a global pandemic and crisis from which to profit. Others in America consider this to be a failure of liberal democracy and the Obama administration (mid-term elections in the US are coming up).
Ironically the anti-industry campaigners are also screaming at chemical and pharmaceutical companies for not acting quickly enough to provide us with the means to limit, control and combat Ebola. How soon they seem to have forgotten the years they have spent trying to castrate the chemical industry.
The Ebola fear in western democracies is ideal for campaigners. There is a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability in the population culminating in the emotion that there is nothing we can do but wait for the plague to infect us and our children. While waiting for the inevitable pandemic, we are receptive to criticisms of our institutions. If you are an activist campaigning against the state and industry (or also a member of the media), what is not to like about this situation?
What we can do
Putting officials at airports and train stations (in hazmat suits!!!) to take temperatures is a silly pantomime that attempts to demonstrate to the public that the officials are in charge. As well, fast-tracking experimental pharmaceutical solutions simply undermines the credibility of the drug approval systems and could badly backfire.
Education is the most important element, whether it is Ebola or any viral outbreak (including influenza). Those risk managers lining up at washroom sinks are not obsessive – they understand how hands transmit viruses. I am impressed at how grass-root movements in Western Africa are visiting communities to explain Ebola and empower individuals to take preventative actions. The USAID Ebola kits being distributed across Liberia are brilliant.
The poorest developing countries need investment in water and sanitation infrastructure. Money being spent on trying to seal borders or find a new drug (curative measures) could have been better spent on preventative measures to benefit societies where Ebola is spreading. Slums in Sierra Leone have no proper sewage systems or access to running water, allowing the virus to easily spread. Hospitals in Liberia are places you go to when it is time to die. We should have spent money on such infrastructure long ago (instead of directing scarce resources to futile plans like trying to cool the planet or restricting agricultural technologies). Many who regularly read this blog know how the Risk-Monger feels about the green lobby’s incommensurate grab of the limited development funding pie.
Oh, and one other thing we can do. We need to thank the chemical industry for continuing to resist attempts to ban chlorine. This cost-effective wonder chemical has been the main tool in the fight to control the spread of Ebola at the source. For more than three decades, Greenpeace has relentlessly fought a campaign to ban chlorine. What would this crisis have been like if they had succeeded? If you cannot stomach thanking the chemical industry, maybe tell Greenpeace to give up the religion and take this one on the chin.