Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
A Deadly Speed Bump
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, September 9, 2014 --
The largest Ebola epidemic in history is a product of African growth. Panicked Westerners would be wise to take note.
As the worst Ebola outbreak in history has continued to spread in West Africa, fear amongst Westerners has gone equally out of control. Air France has suspended flights to affected areas,1 while across the Atlantic, nearly 40 percent of Americans fear a large outbreak in their own country.2
In reality, Westerners are at almost no risk from Ebola. The specter of a deadly disease spread by touching blood from victims inspires thoughts of countless zombie movies in pop culture. But unlike zombies, Ebola victims are too sick to move around, making careworkers and family members burying their own dead the main vectors for transmission.
The fact that these weak vectors are so successful at keeping the disease going in West Africa has much more to do with the particulars of the region than the fearsomeness of the disease. The magnitude of the current outbreak would be impossible without recent changes in Africa.
The big underlying change has been Africa's growth. No longer is the continent sparsely populated and economically stagnant. The continent's population has grown from only 366 million in 1970 to surpass a billion in 2009.3
Meanwhile, a bottom up economic transformation has taken place. Crumbling colonial infrastructure and lack of replacement by corrupt governments has been bypassed by private mobile phone networks, which now offer both communication and banking services. Economic growth in chaotic Nigeria has now made it the largest economy in Africa.
But despite an emerging middle class, poverty is still widespread, both in the countryside and in cities' massive slums. Just as in other cultures where peasants have moved to cities, country habits don't immediately disappear. These customs include eating bush meat (wild game including primates and fruit bats that carry Ebola) and burial of the dead by family members. These customs are precisely what enable Ebola to enter the human population and then spread from one person to another. Because these custom's don't exist in the West, the disease can never get a real foothold in these areas to cause a significant outbreak.
As terrible as the African outbreak is in terms of human life, the fact that the outbreak has been so big is merely a symptom of African growth. If the continent were still sparsely populated and made up of isolated communities, the disease could never would have spread so far. In the bigger picture, this is just a speed bump (albeit a deadly one) on the path to the region's modernization.
And while the disease clearly captures the imagination, the truth is that it is far from Africa's most serious health issue. The death toll of 1800 from the current Ebola outbreak4 is far larger than the 280 people killed in the previously largest outbreak in 1976.5 Yet it is still insignificant compared with the number of deaths from Malaria, which killed over 500,000 people in Africa in 2012.6
While the World Health Organization has warned that the death toll of the current Ebola outbreak could peak at 20,000 cases7 or more, this number is still proportionally below the toll from diseases in the early 20th century in America during similar eras of mass migration from the countryside. At the turn of the last century, New York tenements with newly urbanized peasants were teeming with tuberculosis. That disease had a similar fatality rate as Ebola, but was much more easily spread by sneezing and coughing. The disease killed about 10,000 New Yorkers every single year, despite the city having a much smaller population than West Africa.8
Yes, Ebola is scary. And yes, taking precautions like isolating the sick and avoiding travel to infected areas is prudent. But people must understand that there is no chance of the epidemic establishing itself in the West. More importantly, the size of the epidemic says less about the backwardness of Africa, and more about how far its development has come.
2. Boston Globe, Poll Finds 40 Percent of American Adults Fear U.S. Ebola Outbreak, August 26, 2014
4. World Health Organization, Ebola Response Roadmap Situation Report 2, September 5, 2014
5. World Health Organization, Factsheet on the World Malaria Report 2013, December 2013
6. Ebola haemorrhagic fever in Zaire, 1976, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 1978
7. World Health Organization, Global Response Roadmap, August 2014