Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.
1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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17 thoughts on “Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

    1. I agree. It’s certainly been the problem this time – ‘not over here’…until it is. And meanwhile, the folks where the outbreak is centred suffer terribly, which they need not have…if only help was provided earlier in the right way. It’s dismaying, actually – I mean, the concept of caring for others isn’t exactly rocket science.

      1. I agree. And it is made worse by little to no education. My reading shows that there are those there who don’t believe that Ebola is actually “real” that it is just a made-up ailment with no basis in reality. Thus, they put themselves into situations where they are brought into contact with the disease – but since they don’t think it is real (witchcraft, corporations out for their lands) it continues to spread. It is horrifying that such a small number of people the world over hold all the wealth and power while there are still areas where the people are so educationally, emotionally, and financially crippled that they not only can’t care for themselves properly, but are left victim to every horrific thing to come along, including disease.

        The destruction of forests push wildlife into populated areas, leading to cross-species hybridization of diseases, easy transmission of non-hybrid diseases, as well as devastating hunger when the land that is cleared is found to be barren and unable to support crops. It is horrific stupidity on a global scale brought on by the obsessive wealth gathering of the so-called “first world” countries and a lack of education and training in those of the “third world.” Well, that and the fact that local warlords find it well worth their while to keep the populace poor and stupid in order to enrich their own coffers and allow them the power and brutality that they have enjoyed for eons.

        I don’t know that it will ever change, either . . .

  1. I’ve never considered the idea that zombie-stories are actually analogies for epidemics. I wonder how many authors of zombie fiction realised that and consciously used it for their tales.

      1. “Shaun of the Dead” is the one film of that “trilogy” I haven’t seen yet, but after “The World’s End” I don’t think I want to. “Hot Fuzz” was disturbing enough, but they take absurd to a whole new level.

        Most Zombie films (that I’ve seen – I haven’t read any of the novels in the genre) has some type of virus as the culprit, but I’m rather speaking of the psychology of epidemics. I think if one actually consciously built that into a novel it might just give a zombie tale some manner of depth that has been lacking thus far, in my view at least. (And at the same time we can drop the idea that there is only one person with the knowledge, skills, or unexplained immunity who is the only hope of saving humankind.)

        Back to Ebola, someone asked the other day on Quora.com if Dan Brown had predicted the outbreak when he wrote “Inferno”. I responded by explaining the difference between fiction and fact, and also pointed out that Brown merely drew on decades of research in the field of epidemiology to provide the central conflict of his novel and that the current scenario had actually been “predicted” long ago already.

        But thinking of it now, people are really afraid and terribly misinformed about the disease. A modern “plague” like this is almost more terrifying than terror attacks (and the worst case is where the two collide in the spectre of biological warfare). Hollywood definitely had a hand in cultivating both the misinformation and the fear, but the reality, which Brown also pointed to in “Inferno”, is that in our over-crowded society it’s not a case of “if” but of “when and where”.

  2. Matthew, would you mind if I clicked the dreaded “reblog” button? Great article.

    Other issues are the lack of education, the mistrust of western medicine and reluctance to participate in quarantine.

    This millennium’s Black Death? Possibly. Sadly.

    1. Please do – and many thanks for asking. I appreciate it! You’re right – these factors add to the mix. So too, I think, does the ‘not over here’ problem as far as the West is concerned…until it looks like it will be, which to my mind has caused a good deal of unnecessary suffering. If steps had been taken back in February when the outbreak became obvious, the West African people would not be facing the appalling situation that now confronts them.

  3. I see two other factors in Ebola’s far larger growth rate this time. Poorer countries have become so dependent on the West to step in and straighten everything out, they’ve in effect, paralyzed themselves. They do have police in West Africa and they could’ve been used to isolate(quarantine) towns/villages where outbreaks occur. This wouldn’t be the total solution, but it’s an essential basic move the West will employ when stepping in. I don’t mean to belittle West Africans, merely point out that they act as though more helpless against difficult problems than they really are. The West isn’t always the solution, and if you wait for the West to take action, you make it harder on yourself.

    Second is mobility. This is a far larger factor, I think. People are able to move around far more easily now, than in the 70s for instance. Vehicles and roads are more modern and in better condition, which allows them to transport more people more effectively than ever before, and this also means transporting diseases. The technological advancements that have made life easier for people now serves like Damocles Sword. There’s a good and bad for everything.

    1. That ease of mobility is the killer as far as the West is concerned, particularly given the way airliners are virus capture systems at the best of times. I don’t think I’ve flown long-haul yet without catching a cold (or maybe I just remember the times I caught the cold…)

      One other possibility, which I find frightening, is that ebola has become less virulent – something that’s academic when you have a lethality rate in the 70-90 percent bracket, except that even a small drop makes it easier to spread. Certainly that risk exists if ebola becomes endemic in the region and thus has potential to mutate more readily. For me that’s the bigger risk.

      1. One of the more pernicious attributes you mentioned was that it’s infectious 7-10 days before symptoms appear. That’s just dirty pool! People may believe they’re quite healthy and meanwhile begin spreading the disease everywhere. Someone who’s violently ill from the getgo will at least stay home in bed.

        And then I agree that mutations of the current strain are a major risk. Such mutations break out of sequestration because the symptoms or different or don’t trigger alerts for medical teams. I’m sure WHO is all over it and thinking about these things. I just hope they’ve got it all locked down and under control. I’ve heard of horror stories that never made it to the news (read: censored) where whole cities in Africa were wiped out.

  4. Ebola is one of the scariest diseases—once it’s taken hold of a victim—to me. I guess you’ve heard that they have documented cases in the US (Texas) this week. Air travel makes the spread all the more plausible. Perhaps this is one of nature’s attempts at controlling the overcrowding of a species?

    On a lighter note, I would really like to see the zombie sheep movie sometime.🙂

    1. The US ebola news is very worrying – looks like the guy wasn’t admitted to hospital directly and now others are in quarantine. Ouch. On a happier note, the ‘zombie’ sheep movie is ‘Black Sheep'(2006) – needless to say, very funny. Filmed near Wellington. The director is the son of one of NZ’s better known freelance historians, and among the set dressing, if you know where to look, is a copy of his dad’s best known book. I don’t know US availability is but guess it’s on DVD. Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gEDUDmZkyc

  5. wikipedia says: “the disease is only spread by direct contact with the secretions from someone who is showing signs of infection.” you stated otherwise. why?

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