In her superb narrative history A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman examines the startling parallels between our times and those of the late middle-ages. One of the subjects she examines was the effect of the Bubonic Plague on the social and economic structures of the times.
Ebola may very well constitute another parallel with that distant century in the making. Yesterday, President Obama cut short a fundraising trip and returned to Washington to meet with his cabinet to develop a response plan for dealing with the emerging Ebola “crisis.” He’ll be doing the same today and perhaps tomorrow as well.
What that tells me is that there’s a very good chance our top public health officials have advised the President that there’s a significant chance that Ebola may now have entered into the general population here in the US. Political leaders often know more than they tell us, for fear of affecting markets or causing political backlash. If that’s the case, then we now have a major emerging public health crisis on our hands that the President has taken immediate action with his cabinet to address, as he should. The World Health Organization predicts that the number of new cases of Ebola in Africa could top 10,000 a week within a couple of months. That pencils out to more than a half-million a year.
Let’s be clear about what all this means for us: Ebola has a fatality rate of more than 50%. If the virus gets into the general population here in the US — beyond the reach of the contact identification and isolation control measures now being employed — it could mean mass death measured by the millions in this country alone. Since our culture is one of extremely high mobility, outbreaks could occur simultaneously in large urban centers around the country and then filter rapidly into the rural areas.
In the 14th century, the Bubonic Plague had a similar mortality rate among the general population (actually approaching two-thirds). Tuchman points out that the wealthy fared far better than the urban poor, since they had the means to remove themselves and their servants to remote country estates where stocks of food, fuel and medicine were laid in and the outer grounds were patrolled by paid mercenaries to keep roaming beggars and bandits from the door.
Food prices soared as the breakdown of supply channels caused widespread shortages. Public security failed as the local gendarme’s abandoned their posts in the face of what appeared to be certain death. Roving criminal gangs and marauding bands of mercenaries pillaged, raped and burned at will unopposed by the power of government to enforce the laws. As the nobility fled the cities, the civil institutions failed and everywhere the social structures collapsed.
While I’m not predicting that the same result will happen in these times in this country — after all, there are significant differences in the social and economic structures of then and now — there can be no doubt that an epidemic of Ebola will certainly crash the economy, put an enormous strain on our public health services and judicial and law enforcement institutions, produce mass unemployment, and cause prices for food, medicine and fuel to skyrocket. A modern example might be New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There, too, our political leaders were detached and ineffective.
What we are facing now is a crisis potentially more devastating to our country than the threat of world conquest by the Axis powers in World War II. Like the America that emerged after victory in WWII, the America that emerges after an Ebola epidemic will be a very, very different place than the nation we know now. There is no knowing what that America will look like, but my guess is that it will be a much worse place to live in for those among our children and grand-children who survive: less resources, less security and fewer opportunities.
Now is the time for all our elected officials to come together to deal with this emerging crisis: to provide the leadership to deal with the unspeakable calamities that loom before us like a gathering dust storm. Unfortunately, I have zero confidence that anything of the kind will happen.
Rather, both sides will continue to try to politicize the issue to gain some advantage in the forthcoming election. Those on the right will blame the President and the majority-Democrat Senate for inaction and incompetence, while those on the left will blame the majority-Republican House for cutting funds for public health services and for blocking the ratification of the President’s nominee for Surgeon General.
This is, quite simply, a prime example of the insanity of Washington and the insanity of the mass media and the political pundits who people it. It’s as insane as the ship’s orchestra of the HMS Titanic playing the soulful strains of “Nearer My God to Thee” as the mid-deck began to slip beneath the waves. To a man, they died.
The people need real leadership. They need concerted action across the aisles. They need partisanship set aside and all hands made willing to sacrifice their self-interest to the common good. Cooperation and compromise — even sacrificial compromise by one party or the other — is far better than obstruction and intransigence.
But that is not what we’ll get, because the political atmosphere has been so polluted, so poisoned, by partisan polarization that now neither side accords the other a dime’s worth of trust. That was the case in France just before World War I. As the Germans marshaled their divisions on France’s eastern border, the political leadership, paralyzed by partisanship, did nothing.
There is really only one hope if Ebola insinuates itself into the general population and that is if the electorate votes for a unified government. Personally, I wouldn’t care if both the US House and the US Senate were majority GOP or majority Democrat if it meant that those bodies would thereby take the necessary actions to preserve the Republic in some semblance of its present state.
Unfortunately, here again, the divide is between those whose political ethos calls for strong government intervention and communal sacrifice for the public good, all working together to defeat a common enemy or threat, and those whose ethos insists that the social order, like the economic order, is comprised of winners and losers.
Obviously, the public will benefit far more by electing the former lot as opposed to the latter. Speaking only for myself, I hold out little hope.