Monday, 13 October 2014

Time To Seal All The Borders

I'm reminded of pretty much every disaster movie I've ever seen. The viewer is aware of the huge disaster that is about to happen, whilst everyone else is blissfully going about their business. Only when someone gets eaten by the shark, sees bubbles of gas coming up through the tar pits, recognises the weather patterns and so on do some experts begin to raise their concern, only to find that the authorities reject their warning, usually because closing the beaches and so on would have a serious negative economic impact. The failure to respond to Ebola for weeks, whilst it was spreading rapidly in West Africa; the fact that, despite all the assurances about its limited ability to spread, in developed economies, it has done so; the fact that its being proposed to introduce screening methods on a limited basis, all suggest that there is a potential for Ebola to turn into a major disaster that runs dangerously out of control.

On TV a few days ago, a medical worker in West Africa, said that, up to a couple of weeks ago, they were expecting the number of people to die to be at most a few hundred. Now, he said, they expected the number to be at least a million. If a million people in West Africa die from Ebola that is a sufficiently large number of infected people to virtually guarantee that it spreads out of Africa on a significant scale. The problem already in West Africa is dealing with the large number of people affected. The problem, simply of tracking, isolating and treating people who have come into contact with carriers increases exponentially not arithmetically.

The fact, that despite, the relatively small numbers of people currently suffering with Ebola, compared with the likely numbers in a few weeks time, and despite existing screening at borders, the virus has been carried into the US, and probably many other places, that currently has not shown up, illustrates how quickly the problem could develop, once the numbers involved increase significantly.

In the US, despite its advanced healthcare system, despite all of the advantages of a developed economy, with all the necessary equipment, and with developed systems and protocols, infected individuals were sent home, have come into contact with dozens of other people, who themselves will have come into contact with others. Moreover, despite all those provisions, healthcare professionals dealing with those patients have themselves become infected, and the fact that this has also happened in Spain, demonstrates that this is not likely to be a few isolated instances. If that can happen when you are still only dealing with one or two known patients, just imagine how those system will break down, if only because of human error, when those healthcare systems are dealing with hundreds of such patients, let alone thousands.

Just consideration of the spread of MRSA, C-Diff and other viruses in NHS hospitals should be sufficient to tell us that these protocols are unlikely to prevent the spread of the virus on a wide scale, even through the healthcare system itself.

Although, Ebola is not like Flu, because – as far as we know – it is not an airborne virus, and can only be transferred by bodily fluid, we should not be fooled into thinking that this means that it is likely to be more limited than a flu pandemic. The fact that it has spread so fast, and so extensively in West Africa shows that the fact that it is not currently airborne does not restrict its ability to spread quickly. The virus can apparently live outside the body for some time, so any surface that has not been thoroughly sterilised is a potential death trap, because it can enter through things such as a paper cut on a finger. The nurse in Texas that contracted the virus appears to have possibly been infected after wiping her eye with a glove.

Spanish Flu killed millions of people after World War I, and flu kills large numbers of people every year; far more currently than are dying from Ebola. But, there is a difference. Those that die from Flu are usually the old, the very young, those suffering from existing lung conditions, and who have not been vaccinated beforehand. The fact, that we have extensive vaccines for Flu, whereas the only drugs to treat Ebola are experimental, and have already run out, unable to be produced in large quantities for perhaps another year or so, is itself a significant difference between the two. But, the real difference is that the large majority of people who get the flu, survive it, especially where there health, diet, and access to healthcare is good. By contrast, whether you are young, old, healthy or not, more than 70% of people who get Ebola die. Fewer people may contract Ebola than Flu, but that does not mean a larger number of people will not die from the former.

The authorities are clearly playing down the potential catastrophe that could erupt from a global Ebola pandemic. Like the authorities in the disaster movies, their main concern is economic. For now financial markets are more concerned with the words of central bankers than they are with Ebola, or a range of other global threats. But, that can quickly change as has been seen in the past with other epidemics, as well as with the disruption caused by the dust cloud from the Icelandic volcano a couple of years ago.

The reason for playing it down is simple. Global financial markets have been falling heavily for the last couple of weeks. In Europe, the financial markets and institutions have been promoting the use of loose money to prop up asset prices alongside austerity. In Europe, the austerity is sending economies back into recession, that is also affecting global growth, whilst it has become increasingly clear that the money drugs are no longer effective in propping up asset prices. Its a case of the medicine not just killing the patient, but even killing the doctor. Add on to that a significant limitation of economic activity as a result of a spreading Ebola epidemic, and the stage is set for a major financial panic.

It may already be too late, because one thing we know about viruses is that like every other organism they adapt to their environment. Ebola is apparently carried largely by bats. The potential for spreading from one creature to another in the jungle fairly easily through faeces etc. is probably one reason it has not needed to become airborne. However, the more humans it infects, the more chance it will evolve to spread amongst those hosts, by becoming airborne. There is a good reason, therefore, to try to limit its spread amongst human populations to begin with. If it does become airborne, as was the fear with Bird Flu, then it could become rampant.

The only possible way of affecting that, at the moment, given that no potential vaccine or other treatment is going to be available for at least another year or so, is to close all borders until the present spread of the virus has been contained. That in itself would have a massive economic impact, but nothing like the impact if an Ebola pandemic spreads uncontrollably across the globe. It is after all no different than the kind of restrictions on animal movements undertaken with a foot and mouth outbreak. With the incubation period of the virus being around 20 days, it would be necessary to close borders for at least a month, and to put every effort into isolating and treating existing carriers until it is eradicated.

No doubt, Nigel Farage and other such nationalist nutters would welcome such a move, but it might have another beneficial effect. If national borders were closed just for a week, it would demonstrate just how much our current lifestyle and economy is dependent upon such global movement and trade, especially within Europe. People would get a glimpse of what it would be like were Farage and co. to get their wish of Britain pulling out of Europe, and they would themselves be vaccinated against the noxious virus of nationalism.

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