My Opinion Piece on Ebola in 2014

This is an opinion piece I wrote on Ebola. Fighting a virus is a global obligation, and some of the principles are directly pertinent to fighting COVID-19. A fight against a virus in a globally interdependent world, whether it be Ebola or COVID-19, is something we all need to tackle… not individually as nations, but as a planet.

The devastation caused by the -Ebola virus cries out for people worldwide to get past their -indifference to -impoverished Africans

Michael Simpson | September 26, 2014

After four hours in an ambulance, my thoughts tossed by pain, the doors flew open. There stood a large, imposing figure dressed head to toe in a protective white suit. A mask and goggles hid his composure. There was no need to ask what he was thinking. I had returned from West Africa, he knew I was gravely ill and he knew about infectious disease.

Ebola was discovered in 1976. To date, its entire body count barely scratches the record of other tropical illnesses such as malaria, but malaria does not make us tremble, malaria does not cause riots, malaria does not threaten an entire region and terrify national economies. Malaria does not leave a stigma on survivors, kill the health-care workers trying to battle it and is, to date, curable. Ebola is an entirely different story.

Four years ago I contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito in Nigeria and that landed me in the ambulance in northern British Columbia under the care of an outstanding health system. If I had contracted Ebola, and had no access to qualified help, I probably would not be writing this.

The Ebola virus moves quickly via bodily fluids. Blood, vomit, urine, semen, sweat and tears enter via mucous membranes or open cuts. Shake sweaty hands and casually wipe your eyes — you’ve just contracted it. Technically it is not an airborne disease like the cold or the flu. It cannot yet lurk in the air like SARS. But it can be transmitted via saliva, a sneeze or what is known as “droplet transmission”. Spit in my eye and you might kill me.

The brave souls dealing with infected populations or burial are most at risk. The virus becomes contagious once a person shows active symptoms. Dead bodies remain a teaming source of infection. The incubation period is 21 days and it can live for months in semen after a person recovers. Infected, a person’s immune system goes into overdrive, blood vessels burst, internal organs fail and eventually, painfully, the body goes into septic shock. Victims have less than a 50:50 chance of surviving. If you beat those odds, you are not immune. You can be infected again.

For some Africans, medical workers in protective clothing are seen as possible agents of the disease, while some suspect they would steal away the sick for experiments or evil rituals. Some locals mistakenly believe that the quarantine facilities for those infected will worsen the conditions of their loved ones and cause them to die. So the sick are often hidden away and infect people silently. This makes monitoring the spread and incidence of the plague difficult.

Only a rapid evolution in our identity will stop Ebola from a killing spree that will spread from West Africa. Ebola is a virus that needed certain overripe conditions to gain power. West Africa fermented the perfect opportunity. But global attitudes of indifference to the region that have festered for decades ensured the virus’s success.

I first landed in Sierra Leone in the middle of the war in 2000. British paratroopers were battling child soldiers preoccupied with amputating hands and limbs in a heartless civil war. The conflict was over the international diamond trade. At the time I was recovering from the conditions of poverty I had just witnessed in Guinea. Sierra Leone left my heart in the dirt, trampled by how little attention the world was willing to give.

It is 14 years later and I feel no surprise that we are now wondering how this got so out of control. Very little has changed in West Africa. When we build an identity barrier between “us” and “them” and turn a blind eye to poverty, conflicts or failing states, we create a bubble easily burst by a tiny virus.

We are hopelessly connected on a very small planet. The luxury of looking away or thinking of a problem “over there” or with “them” slipped away long ago.

We are global citizens bound by mutual transportation systems, international air travel, international trade and a single ecosystem, whether we like it or not. Despite our seeming religious and cultural differences, we share a basic global ethic of caring about other sentient beings. Globalization will not allow us to ignore this ethos.

The tiny Ebola virus has come along to shout loud and clear from the rooftops of broken African health clinics that we must identify as a human species and tackle every condition, remove every barrier, shift every attitude, and plead with every indifferent individual.

Canada must step up, look this tiny virus in the eye and speak with every other nation using the language of “we” to kill not just the virus but the conditions in which it can thrive.

Let’s not leave the brave souls who are at the fighting edge on their own, but do what Canadians have done before in times of war. Let’s work as one mind, let’s support the women and men on the front lines, let’s take care of the casualties and outsmart this tiny but formidable opponent. When this war with the virus is over, let’s change forever the conditions that spawned it.