|Bad things are happening with the Ebola virus. And if the current pattern continues, the bad things are about to get a whole lot worse.|
Humans are bad at math.
That's nothing new. In general, they're so bad at math that when confronted with it in the real world, they have trouble seeing its implications.
For an example, let's take the ongoing outbreak of the dreaded Ebola virus in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We've all been watching this with interest and enthusiasm, as we often do when horrible things start to happen.
Ebola does terrible things to people. It starts out with flu-like symptoms, fever, headache, nausea, quickly progressing to vomiting and diarrhea. In many cases, people begin to bleed out, internally and externally. They bleed from the eyes, from the mucous membranes, from bodily orifices. In the current outbreak, 60% or more of the people infected die.
According to the official figures, the number of people known to be infected with the Ebola virus has been approximately doubling every month since April. In fact, it started out at sightly less than doubling, and is now slightly more than doubling.
On April 1, there were 130 known cases of Ebola, mostly in Guinea. On May 5, there were 243 known cases, still mostly in Guinea, but also a small handful in Sierra Leone. On June 5, there were 438 known cases, and suddenly there were more than 80 in Liberia. On July 2, there were 759 known cases. As of August 1, there were 1603 known cases.
See how it pretty much doubles every month?
This is something known as "exponential growth." If you make a graph out of it, it looks like this:
The red line are the people who are infected with Ebola. The black line are people who have died. The black line necessarily trails the red line because not everyone dies, and it usually takes a few weeks of delay before they do.
But look what that red line is doing! It's getting very steep. In fact, it's "going exponential." If the current growth rate continues, there should be more than 3,000 people with Ebola by September 1, and more than 6,000 by October 1.
Western world health officials have been aware of this trendline since the beginning. But just two days ago, they announced they were sending an additional 50 healthcare personnel into the affected countries. That seems like a rather small, and late, response.
Indeed, a few years from now, if you look up "woefully inadequate" in the dictionary, the 2014 Ebola response is likely to be the definition. I almost hope that it's designed to fail on purpose.
If sending 50 people is the best that the finest minds in the US, the EU, and at the UN can come up with, then we have a bigger math problem than I thought.
Of course, the Ebola numbers are still relatively small. But there are complicating factors which makes the situation even more dangerous than it appears.
One is that whereas Guinea more or less has the situation in their country under control, in Sierra Leone, the number of infected has been tripling every month, and in Liberia the number has been quadrupling.
The other is the nature of the countries where this is taking place.
The Recent Past in West Africa
Yesterday, a brief news story flitted by, which described how both Liberia and Sierra Leone had begun to deploy troops to keep order and enforce quarantines around areas infected with Ebola.
I took this as a bad sign. You see, the troops from these countries don't have a very good track record when it comes to behaving with discipline, interacting with the ordinary folks, and respecting human rights.
From about 1980 until 2003, Liberia in particular, but also Sierra Leone, were in the grip of one violent coup after another, which degenerated into civil war and total societal collapse. More than half a million people died in Liberia, and another 50,000 in Sierra Leone.
The violence was extreme, and took on bizarre, surreal qualities. For example, in 1990, the President of Liberia was named Samuel Doe. Ten years before, Doe had murdered and disemboweled the previous President, possibly with the help of CIA agents.
But in 1990, full-scale civil war was on, and Samuel Doe was captured and stripped naked by a militia headed by a man named Prince Johnson ("Prince" isn't a title in this case - it's a common first name in Liberia).
Doe plead for his life, and for a while Johnson seemed to consider sparing him. Then he changed his mind. His men tortured Doe, cut his ears off, cut his tongue out, murdered him, chopped him up, and ate him. Much of this went on while Johnson sat at a desk nearby, drank a Budweiser, and seemed amused by Doe's plight.
You can watch this begin to unfold if you like. They videotaped it, and it's right there on Youtube for your viewing pleasure:
Samuel Doe Meets Prince Johnson
But the fighting had barely started at that point. Prince Johnson never really held the Presidency. His militia battled the militia of Charles Taylor, who did take over and managed to call himself President. Then other groups joined in.
The war was marked by atrocities on all sides - mass rape, massacres, deliberate starvation, widespread cannibalism, and the use of child soldiers. The soldiers began to wear strange costumes into the fighting, giving the war an even more disturbing quality.
|Liberian militia member during the civil war.|
The fighting spilled across the border into Sierra Leone, toppled that government, and created chaos there as well.
Charles Taylor survived the war and is now serving 50 years at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Prince Johnson also survived. He's currently a Liberian Senator.
So what's my point? Just this: deploying Liberian troops is likely to make the situation worse, rather than improve it. People in the countryside don't trust men in soldier outfits. And the troops themselves are liable to start raping people, killing people, becoming infected with the disease themselves, and then moving around the country.
A worst case scenario is the disease continues its exponential spread, panic leads to a breakout of violence, which in turn leads to a civil breakdown.
Then you could have the spectacle of dying people murdering each other while bleeding from every orifice. Which reminds me a lot of how zombie movies start.
Now, the chances of the worst case happening are probably pretty slim. Maybe they're one in ten. But they're not zero. Not even close.
Here's a short film shot in 2012, showing the grim conditions in Liberia before the Ebola epidemic (yes, the kid is holding up a human heart, which he says he plans to eat):