The Take

Come on in, the Plague Is Fine

October 08, 2014

In his very own vein of nuttiness, George Will argued that that there is no point in stopping flights from Ebola infected areas, because someone from an infected area would just take a detour through Bombay or Rome on his way to the US. That’s pretty dumb of George. Extra barriers and costs may not be guaranteed to stop every single determined idiot, but they sure stop most of them, and that’s a good thing. This idea that anything less than perfection is equivalent to complete failure is pernicious and obviously false, and yet you hear it over and over again. Everyone who uses this argument should be flogged.   

I talked about short-term risks, but there is a potential long-run problem as well. Sure, Ebola is basically a bat virus that’s just visiting humanity—but sometimes those visitors settle in for the long haul. Many serious human infectious diseases started out in some other species. Measles split off from rinderpest (which infects cattle); yellow fever originated in monkeys and is still found there. A century ago, HIV was just another monkey virus.

When these pathogens jump species, they change. They mutate, and some of those mutations help them adjust to their new host. The more people infected, the more copies of the Ebola virus there are, and the more chances of mutations that would transform Ebola into a permanent human pathogen. I don’t know how to evaluate that probability—but it’s happened before, more than once. Closing this epidemic down would be a good thing, not just in terms of the people suffering now, but in the long run as well.

Taking a step back and looking at the even bigger picture,  there is always something new out of Africa, and it’s all bad. Africa is a source of pathogens. That’s partly because it has so much biological diversity, and partly because Africa’s many primates carry infectious organisms that can make the jump to humans relatively easily. The real solution is unwilding Africa: turn the forests into farms, drain the swamps, shoot the monkeys.

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