How is it possible to ignore ebola? It is now in every news bulletin and in every newspaper, and I assume that this is so in America, Spain and Germany, all of which have had deaths of ebola victims in their hospitals. The French newspaper Le Monde has details of the 100,000 protective lightweight suits being made in the UK for use in Sierra Leone (information that doesn’t seem to be prominent in the UK media), and more information about the situation in West Africa than the UK press has. Today the British government has ordered that screening begins at Heathrow, followed within a week by the same measures at Gatwick and at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. I feel particularly irritated by this as I shall be travelling from Paris to London by Eurostar next week and will no doubt be subject to tedious delays due to staff unfamiliarity with the process!
Surely we have to ask what we are doing.
Weeks ago Medecins sans Frontieres took out whole page adverts in the broadsheets (I don’t know about the tabloids) warning that the ebola crisis was not going away in West Africa. It had gone beyond the point of burning itself out, they clearly stated. They made a desperate plea for Europe to wake up to the crisis and become involved. They were explicit about the need for funds and concrete resources, including personnel if possible. I heard nothing significant in the way of response from our government. Predictably, the response has only been initiated by fear of the virus reaching our shores.Now an enormous amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the UK stays as safe as possible, acknowledging that it is likely that a few people infected with ebola will reach the UK, but that it will be contained by the measures that have been put in place. The hallmarks of panic-induced activity are already evident – the airport screening that starts today has been declared useless by authoritative medics, but their voice has been overridden by politicians (who are, of course, experts in infectious diseases).The atmosphere of fear around ebola mirrors that surrounding Isis (the term Islamic State is to be avoided I read because, reasonably, it implies that they are Islamic and that they have statehood, neither of which are considered by the rest of the world to be true). The evidence of execution by beheading, and the stories of crucifixion and torture is reminiscent of medieval times – times when the bubonic plague wiped out vast numbers. The idea that we are rendered as helpless as were our forefathers 500 years ago is an effront to the average rationally minded 21st century western citizen. How can the barbarities of Isis, and the return of plague pits and quarantined villages belong anywhere in our world view?
Not for the first time it strikes me that although we often say that, thanks to Google Earth, multiple visual media, and easy access to relatively affordable travel, our world has shrunk drastically compared to the world of the 1960s, perhaps that isn’t really true. Perhaps our western world has moved even further away from the rest of the world. The glimpses that are afforded by the tourist trails to Asia, Africa and the East are illusory – showcases that are themselves divorced from the cultural reality of these continents. I have travelled to Russia four times, once to Ekaterinburg a year after it was opened to the West, and three times to St Petersburg.I stayed with Russian people, visited hospitals as a guest of Russian doctors, gave talks in Russian universities. I am sure that I saw more ‘real’ Russian life than the average package tourist, and perhaps could begin to compare the life of a Russian hospital doctor with my own, but that is as far as it goes. I formed an impression of Russian culture in that tiny portion of St Petersburg life, and could see that it was very different from Ekaterinburg. How different must the lives of those doctors be from that of a doctor in the more far flung cities of Russia, or in remote rural areas? How different again is the culture in Iran, Iraq, China, the countries of West Africa?
I remember a friend, a Romanian doctor working in the UK, saying to me over a decade ago that the English didn’t understand that democracy couldn’t happen to a country overnight. He said that because we had centuries of democracy in our history we underestimated the infrastructure needed to sustain it. He suggested that benevolent dictatorship was actually preferable, and created a more stable country. Now we are beginning to hear that Iraq just might possibly have been better left in the control of Saddam Hussein. Not that anyone is suggesting that he was a benevolent dictator, but the point made is that the country was more stable.
This is not the place to rehearse the arguments for and against the Iraq war, but the current middle eastern instability has without doubt been facilitated by the aftermath of the war. As with ebola, we are being forced to confront the unpleasantnesses happening on other continents because of their incursion onto our own. Our inability to enter the mindset of other cultures, and our certainty that our own democratic, western way of life is not only best, but ideally should be adopted by others, renders us vulnerable to panic, and to panic-driven responses to both ebola and Isis.