Rod Liddle

Panic about Ebola in Africa – not here

The risk of the average Brit contracting Ebola is substantially less than being hit by lightning

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

Got Ebola yet? Early symptoms are very difficult to distinguish from either winter flu or, indeed, a particularly bad hangover. Bit feverish, aches and pains, sore throat and so on. Only when you start to bleed from the eyeballs should you worry a bit: that’s never happened before with Jack Daniels. It was the African bloke huddled up on the tube, I would reckon, the one who kept coughing. I knew I shouldn’t have sat near an African.

One or two clinical experts have been likening the Ebola virus to HIV. They seem to me similar more in a sociological sense. I remember those days when people avoided being in close proximity to homosexuals for reasons other than their appalling taste in music, or their moustaches. The mid-1980s were a time of frit panic and a concomitant nastiness directed towards a community which could genuinely, back then, be described by that now ubiquitous and debased word ‘vulnerable’. We are experiencing the same sort of panic right now and much of the same nastiness. If you doubt this, check out the reader comments on every story the Daily Mail runs about Ebola. Ban them all from coming anywhere near the country! Horrible, bat-munching savages. If they’re here, kick them out! And so on, ad infinitum.

The threat to the average Brit of contracting Ebola is substantially less than the risk of being hit by lightning, and will remain so, I suspect. Incidentally, the clinical comparison with HIV is of interest: both viruses are easily capable of mutating so as to become more effective. More effective for themselves, not out of viral malevolence, of course. Indeed the suspicion is that, like HIV, Ebola will become less and less lethal, eventually settling down at a death rate of around 5 per cent (by which time we may have an effective and quick vaccination, which we are some distance from acquiring at the moment). The less lethal a virus, the more successful it is in its own terms of replicating.

There are already signs that the death rate in the current epidemic is coming down, even in those benighted West African countries which are singularly ill-equipped to deal with such an outbreak. Ebola, then, may eventually take its place in the pantheon of illnesses which are very scary in the abstract, but which we have little chance of catching and which can be treated with reasonable success. A disease which kills poor black people.

And this, I think, is why we have got our approach to the current outbreak a little awry. It seems to me that the government’s sudden galvanisation on this issue, its dire warnings and promise of action, are motivated not by the real threat of the UK being hit by an Ebola epidemic — something which is surely beyond the bounds of possibility — but by the salacious and somehow weirdly gleeful reportage in our morning newspapers, and on our television screens. Having insisted — rightly, in my opinion — that screening incoming passengers from West Africa to British airports would be costly and ineffective, the government is now saying that it will indeed do some screening, while quietly still admitting that the screening will be pretty much useless, all things considered. One estimate I saw suggested that only 8 per cent of visitors from West Africa would be screened for the virus. Meanwhile, we are being whipped into a frenzy. The hospitals are not prepared for a mass outbreak! We’re all going to die! Well of course they are not prepared for this ‘mass outbreak’, because it will not happen and they have other stuff to worry about. And we’re not all going to die.

I am not remotely blasé about Ebola in general; only about its potential threat to our own comfortable and insulated lives. I am old enough to remember the first reported outbreak, in Zaire back in 1976, and thus being appalled when it returned in the mid-1990s. Back then, it battled for scare-story space with another arriviste horror, ‘necrotising fasciitis’, which popped up in our hospitals and turned the flesh of patients to the consistency of cheese. That naughty little monkey is still with us, although comparatively very few people have succumbed.

We seem to adore working ourselves up over these sci-fi biological nightmares, and we tend to lose a sense of proportion in the process. We become gripped by the ghoulish weirdness of each illness, by the bizarre symptoms and by the thrill of an existential threat hovering in Damoclean fashion just out of our eyesight. And it warps our judgment. The government’s allegedly ‘belated’ response is evidence of that.

What we should have done, and should still do right now, is concentrate our efforts and money on battling the outbreak where the outbreak is actually taking place. In short, in some of the worst countries in the world: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that wonderful new creation South Sudan and — most worry-ingly of all — Nigeria.

This is only a guess, but I would hazard that the reason the current outbreak has become so widespread is that people move around a lot more than they did back in 1976, or even the 1990s. We really do not want the disease spreading throughout over-populated Nigeria, not for their sake nor for ours. A couple of medical charities I have spoken to were highly critical of the initial response of western governments and, in particular, the World Health Organisation; ineffectual and too little, too late were the gist of the criticisms. Ebola is a real threat in West Africa and we have done very little about it — no more than we have devoted ourselves to combatting the two really big killers in the same continent, Aids and malaria. But then they, too, are diseases which these days afflict poor black people.

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Show comments
  • AJH1968

    Cue the
    next Hollywood blockbuster with predictable platitudes, clichés, the usual pantomime
    villains, and of course the right sort of pc heroes and heroines.

    • WimsThePhoenix

      Cue the moronic complacency from Rod’s readership.

      • Baron

        Jones was right then: Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.

  • Terry Field

    IT will become so commonplace, that granny will stop by for a cup of coffee and say ‘oooh me ’emmeroids!, and I feel a but crook ’cause’ I got a tuch of the ‘boly’ at bingo the uvver nite’

    • WimsThePhoenix

      No. I didn’t lol. Neither will you if the silly buggers let it spread.

      • Terry Field

        Oi thynks yoo needs a B&Q marsk loike that feller in that ther pyctoore abuv. He looks right readY!
        Boly and chips! No way!
        Boly and Chimp!
        Bush meet – that’s the arnser! Non o’ that spam, or cornd beef fer mi!
        That be the food we needs!

      • William_Brown

        “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring”….

        Rod, you forgot SARS and Bird Flu…….and Mad Cow Disease. All were going to be a pandemic of biblical proportions.


  • WimsThePhoenix

    I don’t think you are up to date, Rod. It looks like it can be passed through the air by coughing. The reason it keeps cropping up in Africa is because you can’t stop Africans eating bushmeat. The reason it spreads is because you can’t stop some cultures insisting on washing the corpses before burial.

    However, given that care workers in suits are getting infected, this suggests that you are deliberately or mistakenly downplaying the dangers.

    The comparison with HIV does not work, either.

    Whereas HIV requires an exchange of bodily fluids for transmission, Ebola only requires aerosol droplets from a cough, much like the flu which you compare the symptoms too. Face masks do not stop it either.

    Sorry Rod, you are wrong on this one.

  • Baron

    The West have done BA about it, Rod, because Ebola and the other two killers – Aids and cholera – together with warring, famine keep a lid on the excessively high population growth of that continent, growth entirely engendered by our decades long and insane Aid to Africa programmes.

    And you’re right. It won’t be a threat to us as it has been to the poor of Africa for we wash more often, drink clean water to excess, have a vaccine, drugs to combat it.

    Have a scan of this, it’s penned by a Russian, but she should be OK even for Fraser not to moderate this posting out, she’s a powerful critic of him, the colonel not the Scot, (and still lives in Moscow).

    • Ngaire Lowndes

      I read her words with interest until I reached the sentence about Africans eating chimpanzees – and pygmies.

      • Baron

        You should have persevered, Ngaire, because she only refers to an article
        that originates from our shores, up north, and her summing up may have
        cheered you up.

    • rtj1211

      Total deaths in Africa due to Ebola in 40 years will be under 500,000. Hardly affects population growth, does it??

  • Ahobz

    Rod – where do you get the evidence that the epidemic may be slowing? Yesterdays situation report on teh WHO website says,

    “Data for epidemiological week 41 are incomplete, with missing data for 12 October from Liberia. This reflects the challenging nature of data gathering in countries with widespread and intense EVD transmission. These challenges remain particularly acute in Liberia, where there continues to be a mismatch between the relatively low numbers of new cases reported through official clinical surveillance systemson one hand, and reports from laboratory staff and first responders of large numbers of new cases on the other. Efforts are ongoing to reconcile different sources of data and to rapidly scale-up capacity for epidemiological data gathering throughout each country with widespread and intense transmission. It is clear, however, that the situation in
    Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is deteriorating, with widespread and persistent transmission of EVD. An increase in new cases in Guinea is being driven by a spike in confirmed and suspected cases in the capital, Conakry, and the nearby district of
    In Liberia, problems with data gathering make it hard to draw any firm conclusions from recent data. There is almost certainly significant under-reporting of cases from
    the capital Monrovia. There does appear to have been a genuine fall in the number of cases in Lofa district, but a concerted effort will be required to sustain that drop in cases and translate it into an elimination of EVD in that area. In Sierra Leone, intense transmission is still occurring in the capital Freetown and the surrounding districts.”

    • Baron

      Looks like we’re hitting the decease by ‘scaling up the capacity for epidemiological data gathering’.

      An interesting tool, probably cost effective, too.

  • Terence Wilkinson

    Rod, are you suggesting that our media and government are racist? I think that is a little unfair given that periodically the media like to scare the hell out of us by proclaiming a disease to be the next plague. So far I have survived Mad Cow Disease, SARs, Bird Flu (remember that scary dead swan?), Swine Flu and countless other apocalyptic diseases. It is a case of the media acting in an irresponsible manner and the government bringing in token measures because they must be seen to be doing something.

    • rtj1211

      All those scares were part of stock price manipulation strategies to get share price rises of 100% or more.

  • StupidWhiningMen

    Ebola meet ISIS.

    • Fenton!

      Ebola is Isil with a friendlier face.

  • MikeF

    Given that you can never get things exactly right which is best in this instance – to overreact or underreact? It has got to be one or the other. Maybe screening incoming passengers is relatively ineffective but can any government risk the public reaction they would face if the disease did get a hold in Europe or the US and they had not been seen to be taking every possible preventive measure beforehand? Rod also does not draw the logical conclusion from his own argument – if the risk of the disease spreading from West Africa is a direct consequence of modern travel then shouldn’t the whole region be quarantined?

  • Mr Grumpy

    What’s with the seacolised history lesson, Rod? Younger readers could be forgiven for concluding that gay men in the eighties were mown down by frit panic and nastiness rather than by the consequences of sexual Russian roulette. If we’re drawing comparisons with the Ebola situation the worrying thing is that behaviour never changed all that much despite the wall-to-wall condom propaganda.

    • Fenton!

      What the heck is ‘frit panic’, pray tell? I understand ‘panic’, it’s the ‘frit’ I’ve never heard of.

      • Terry Field

        Fear of a chip (singular).
        Frits is plural

        • Fenton!

          Thanks: I still don’t understand it though. Fear of a chip? %^[|

          • Terry Field

            The clue is in English / French translation.

      • whs1954

        The Prime Minister (Rt Hon Mrs M Thatcher): “The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Could not take it? Cannot stand it?” – Hansard, Tuesday 19 April 1983

  • Diggery Whiggery

    They need lots of crises at the moment to keep us all voting the right way and they’ll damn well create panic if they need to. Amazing how all these ‘global problems’ have all come along at just the right time.

    This is no time for unwise experimentation people. Vote status quo and they’ll protect you.

  • Terry Field

    It is hubristic nonsense to suggest we are protected from this thing; the condition of life here does not promise to greatly hinder the advance of the disease – and the terror and evacuation of medical centres by staff will just as potently occur here as in poor Africa. What stops it ripping through the poorer and weaker Eastern European states and other points that will allow it to jump into many entry points of self-satisfied and quite delusional Western Europe.
    The article is complacent. To a frightening degree.
    Bring out your dead!
    Bring out your dead!

  • Alexsandr

    you just need 1 person with undiagnosed ebola on a crowded tube train and you are in trouble.
    Look at the panic in the US about that nurse on a plane.

    • miranda

      You should not underestimate the danger that a nurse can pose when she’s cruising at 600 knots.

  • Boris

    Total containment has proven to be the only effective method for preventing the spread of Ebola. The African governments have been very slow in reacting to Ebola, seemingly for financial reasons while individuals are blamed for not reporting individuals and family memebrs due to ‘shame’ and fear of what will happen to them.

    One little known fact about Ebola is that male survivors may be able to transmit the disease via semen for nearly two months post infection recovery. Other bodily fluids that may transmit Ebola viruses include saliva, mucus, vomit,
    feces, sweat, tears, breast milk, and urine. Entry points
    for Ebola into humans include the nose, mouth, eyes, open wounds, cuts and abrasions.

    As there are so many emerging fake ‘Quack’ remedies appearing on the internet, the US Food and Drug Administration
    (FDA) has advised people to be very careful of advertisements making unverified,
    or fraudulent, claims of benefits supposedly gained from various
    anti Ebola products. The FDA has already sent out at least one letter of warning to a seller of Colloidal Silver who has made unverified claims of Ebola related benefits, supposedly derived from the use of their products.

    • Fenton!

      A great argument for celibacy when in Africa and many other occasions as well.

      • miranda

        Celibacy is overrated. A bit like beaujolais nouveau.
        Not that I have much experience of either.

        • Fenton!

          Overrated by whom? Given the available males, I’d rather do without the bonking or the cheap beauj and have a really toothsome bottle of Nebbiolo instead.

          • miranda

            Sorry Swanky, I shouldn’t tease you so.
            I have a mischievous streak.

          • Fenton!

            Do I know you? And if I know you, how shall I know you? Please tease me all you like. I am almost the Buddha except my teeth show when I laugh.

          • miranda

            “how shall I know you?”
            Let us count the ways.

            You know, when all is said and done, I think I like anonymity – it’s safer!

          • Guest

            F, is genuine.Always be guarded trust very few.
            This place is fall of ego’s with their own agenda.
            Escapism from their ‘real’ never mention your actual life..learned that one too
            late. Rather bad for someone with a very high
            IQ .And anonymity is indeed that
            wrong too. Good luck new lady..bye .

  • Fenton!

    I wish my husband would read this. On the other hand, our ‘insulated’ lives only seem that way, and the barrier between us and disaster is always subject to failure because of complacency. It’s like people that insist we’ll always be a democracy because our Constitution guarantees it. The Constitution is a parchment barrier. The moment we fail to support it in sufficient numbers is the moment it will fail to protect us.

    Doing nothing isn’t really an option. After all the first duty of government is to protect its citizens from attack — even by viruses.

    • Terry Field

      Surely the first duty of a government is to reduce house prices by reducing the population by whatever means are available????

      • Fenton!


    • rtj1211

      Actually, it is to take the most appropriate cost-benefit action, since you can spend unlimited amounts reducing the risks of everything to zero and, short of raising taxes by 10p in the pound for everyone, no money will be available to do that.

      Most cost-effective thing to do is to invest in eradicating at source. Nigeria has become Ebola free using low-tech, so similar solutions need to be applied, with extra add-ons due to greater spread, in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. It may cost $250m per country, but spread across the world, that’s nothing.

  • Sean L

    *Any* African disease will by definition afflict the “poor and black” because that’s what most Africans *are*, at least relative to any other people. So “poor and black” serves no explanatory purpose other than being a more emotive synonym for “African”. The kind of language you’d expect more from a ” diversity ” professional, the type that’s usually at the end of his invective, than from Rod Middle himself. Besides, Malaria is indiscriminate. Even tourists get it. An African Premiership footballer was diagnosed recently – black but hardly poor. Anyway, if it weren’t for the Greens Malaria would have been eradicated long since. But they’re more concerned with “the planet”, whatever that’s supposed to represent, than actual people African or otherwise. . .

  • Noa

    You are so tantalisingly near the nub of the matter in this excellent article Rod.
    Ebola is not a virus that is likely to do any great and lasting harm in Europe or Britain.
    We have however, imported another far more virulent disease, a fatal, monstrous, blood soaked epidemic spreading through the world, the consequences of which we are only starting to understand and combat.
    We deploy 750 military personnel in a political red herring, whilst continuing to send ‘international development’ aid to a country whose courts uphold the laws sentencing a christian cotton worker to death for drinking water from the same well as muslims.

  • Richard Eldritch

    Nonsense Ebola could kill you to death and remember- Vote Labour get Milliband.

  • miranda

    “The threat to the average Brit of contracting Ebola is substantially less than the risk of being hit by lightning,”

    I dare say………though I recall you admitting to a fear of lighting that must have far exceeded the threat that it posed to you.
    We don’t spend our time rationally calculating risk, which is one reason why being human is so much fun.

  • Ne11y

    Loving the hysteria over Ebola, which is arbitrary in whom it attacks, yet no hysteria over smoking, drinking and obesity related illnesses which are within an individual’s control and are bankrupting the NHS. But let’s not be silly and talk about stopping smoking, drinking too much and eating crap. No no. Let’s just give money to ‘Stand Up To Cancer’ and absolve ourselves of personal responsibility and making any life changes that might stop us from dying, in the hope they’ll find a ‘cure’.

  • edlancey

    Rod, your observations are normally a bit better than this. Aids isn’t/wasn’t an infectious disease in the same way that Ebola is.

    Isolation (stopping all travel from a hotzone) and quarantine are the basics that have worked in the past. The great plague was curtailed in London by nailing the house doors up with the unfortunates and their families inside. It worked. Nothing has really changed.

    ps I’m surprised that, amidst the debris of cliches, you forgot to mention how many people get killed every year in car accidents…

  • JimHHalpert

    Interestingly, both HIV and malaria are political diseases. HIV is extremely hard to catch unless you indulge in extremely reckless behaviour – something that could be combatted with education and/or sanctions against that behaviour. For political reasons this was hardly tried – better to go the “harm reduction” route and let wider society take the hit. And we, of course, know how to stop malaria with DDT but thanks to the sainted Rachel Carson “tens of millions of human lives – mostly children in poor, tropical countries – have been traded for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors.”

    Ebola may well be about to follow the same pattern. I wonder how many Americans or Europeans will have to die before we realise we’ve taken another hit so our politicians can bask in their humanity.

    (And well done, Rod, for going all contrarian and writing a “be nice to black people” article.)

  • rtj1211

    I think that the dangers of Ebola will only be similar to HIV if there is a significant community of sexually active recoverers who are global commuters and have sex in every stop of the global village.


    The latency period for HIV was long (several years), so it was possible for people to be sexually active after contracting the disease for a long time before it became apparent. With Ebola, you die quite quickly (a few weeks) if you don’t get treated or display natural immunity and the disease is only transmitted sexually by males in the first three months after recovery. So you need to hot foot it from Africa to an overseas haven, hide your Ebola status and start rogering jolly quickly and regularly for the disease to really take hold. Unless of course no-one in the world is aware of Ebola and allows hospitals to become the hotbeds of transmission. That’s very unlikely in the West to be honest.

    Ebola’s been around as long as HIV but has never got to kill millions. That has to say that, in the absence of the ‘security services’ madmen/women releasing weapons-grade Ebola into the world, it will take a natural mutation to virulence to trigger an epidemic of any significance.

    A global ‘investment prophylactic’ is indicated right now: facilities and equipment, protection and education for health workers, African communities is what is needed.

    Then a ‘watchful monitoring’ for viral mutation and signs of virulence, allied to vaccination programmes when vaccines come on track.

  • Davey

    Journalists love to scare us all – it keeps them in work. Remember ‘mad cow disease’ and ‘bird flu’? Won’t be long before Britain is sub-tropical – Malaria is coming!

  • mikewaller

    Rod, you must be getting old, you’re starting to take a clear-eyed view of our stupid scumbag press.

  • Retired Nurse

    .. can I just say that the apolitical MedecinsSansFrontiere (who tell governments to shove strings-attached donations and rely on private donations for 99% of their income) have a PayPal link on their donations page which even accepts £1 donations… – thanks.

  • mandelson

    The media seems to drive this with a mixture of hysteria and endless blame gaming, endless emotion and very little by way of useful information (see for example the endless nagging interviewing style of Emily Maitliss). Underlying the reporting is this not so subliminal leftist message that Africa’s almost total lack of functional infrastruture and inability to deal with any health crisis is somehow the fault of “the international community” (i.e. the West) and nothing to do with those countries being run by criminal gangs who have plundered their countries.