Friday, October 3, 2014

And So It Begins

Sometimes life imitates art just a little to closely for comfort. When I first heard about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, I immediately flashed to Orson Scott Card's Hidden Empire. For various reasons he used a fictional virus he called the nictovirus rather than actual Ebola in his novel, but the story proved all too prophetic, right down to the stigmatization of survivors by people who don't understand how these people are now immune to reinfection and can safely nurse others through the disease.

Card's novel ends with the United States still free of the fictional nictovirus, although it's strongly suggested that the (as of yet unpublished) third volume would be dealing with the fatal slip that allows America's Patient Zero through the border. Here in the Primary World that particular Rubicon has now been crossed with the diagnosis of one Eric Duncan, a Liberian who'd come to visit American family. Already there are accusations of major errors in the handling of Mr. Duncan's case, particularly given he tried to get medical treatment when he first became ill but was sent away with antibiotics, and only when he developed major symptoms did the medical establishment finally pay attention, by which point he may have infected a hundred people, including the EMT's who transported him.

And we've had the usual angry frightened voices calling for extreme measures, whether sealing off the entire African continent and leaving millions of people to die or running off to the hills to hide. Many of them don't understand basic concepts such as the difference between contagious and infectious, two words that are often used colloquially as if they were interchangeable but which in fact have very different technical meanings (contagious refers to the speed with which a disease moves through the population, while infectious refers to the number of bacteria or viral particles which are needed for an exposure to result in infection).  As a result, they have no real idea of how to assess the risk of becoming infected, and thus call for measures that are useless at best and quite possibly counterproductive.

Worse, many people no longer trust the government to respond appropriately and effectively. The CDC has recently been plagued by scandals related to the handling of infectious materials, including anthrax spores  And many people have come to perceive the Obama Administration as being about as competent as that of the fictional President Warrick in John Ringo's The Last Centurion -- that is, one you can trust to not just fumble the response to a crisis, but do so in a way that actively makes the situation worse -- even as we're being told again and again that we don't need to worry, that the biggest reason for the severity of the Ebola outbreak in Africa is the extreme poverty and lack of resources of the affected countries, that even in Nigeria a somewhat more wealthy society has been able to marshal a response which has contained and stopped an emergent outbreak that resulted from a traveler from Liberia bringing Ebola into the country.

I would like to think that things will go as smoothly as they did in Tom Clancey's Executive Orders, in which the Ebola outbreak wasn't just a traveler from a region of Africa where it was active, but the result of deliberate terrorism. However, given the state of our country right now, I'm uneasily aware of how quickly it could look more like The Last Centurion.

So don't panic, but be prepared. Have the basics available at home that you'd want for any disaster that could strand you for several days -- food, water, basic medicines and toiletries, the ability to cook and keep yourself warm, etc. Know your neighbors, and be prepared to help as needed, but don't put yourself in needless risk just to be a hero.

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