BY THE time we have stopped Ebola — and we shall, eventually — the world will be a poorer place, but perhaps humanity will have gained some wisdom in the way we relate to each other.
There now seems to be little doubt that many more people, possibly tens of thousands more, will die agonising deaths from the disease. We expect economies to take years to recover and developmental goals to be postponed, and the misery of poverty and the diseases of underdevelopment to be extended indefinitely.
I hope we are wrong. I hope Big Pharma comes up with a cure and a vaccine tomorrow, and that some rich nation’s shock-and-awe troops will distribute it free of charge to everyone on earth. I hope it will all be over soon and we can go back to life before plague and pestilence.
What are the chances of that happening? It is hard to say. Business Day reported that Howard Ward, chief investment officer for growth equities at Gamco Investors, as saying that investors had been blindsided with a threat that defies quantification. Their instinct is to sell lest others beat them to the punch. "There is nothing in business school or a … textbook addressing how to handicap Ebola," he said.
What we can say with greater certainty is that the old spiritual notion that the fates of all of humanity are intertwined is increasingly manifested in physical reality. It has never been clearer that an underdeveloped public health system threatens not only the community in the immediate vicinity of an outbreak, but the entire world.
If there is any good to come out of the Ebola tragedy, it will be a realisation among privileged societies that sustained wealth and good fortune are only as certain as the prospects of the most humble among us.
It may be, we hope, that Ebola never reaches our neck of the woods, that our health authorities act with rigour, contrary to their reputation, to keep the disease out of SA and nowhere near the member’s fishing grounds.
As the Ebola outbreak escalated from a West African regional event to an international crisis, the member (of the Upper Jukskei Flyfishing Collective) told himself what a lucky thing it was that no one in the Dullstroom district ate bats and that the only people likely to carry the virus near his fishing grounds were wealthy travellers whom he avoided as a matter of course. It was lucky, too, that the matter foremost in the member’s mind was whether to fish dry flies only at the evening rise when he returns from his beer run to the village, or whether he should pair the dry with an emerger fished subsurface.
It was a lucky thing that his preoccupation with the technicalities of having a fabulously good time on the water meant that the contrast between the comely commercialism of Dullstroom and the abject misery among the shack people living on the fringes of the village’s Sakhelwe township went unnoticed. If he had paid attention he would have noticed that Sakhelwe’s fringe dwellers, where they live on the upper catchment of the streams feeding the trout ponds at fishing estates downstream, had no adequate sanitary arrangements and he would have realised that his clean water privilege was only as certain as the level of development among the fringe people.
It may be, we hope, that Ebola never reaches our neck of the woods, that our health authorities act with rigour, contrary to their reputation, to keep the disease out of SA and nowhere near the member’s fishing grounds. And it may be that the outbreak peters out as it has done before, but even if it does, the underlying disparities which have allowed the consequences of the epidemic to spread to the entire world will generate another plague and then another and another unless we act on the realisation that all humans are bound to each other.
If we don’t begin to rearrange the world now, it will not be organised protests or earnest hand-wringing that changes the world, but that poverty and the pestilences that follow it.