EDITORIAL

Ebola is a Game Changer

A Black Swan event is one that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences. So reasons Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his bestselling 2010 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb shows that Black Swan events explain almost everything about our world, while experts are initially often blind to them. In retrospect, such events could have been predicted but weren’t because there were unheeded signals.

History Repeats Itself

The Ebola virus has found its way out of Africa into the United States and recently landed in New York City. This Black Swan event, which only started to encroach on public consciousness a few months ago, meets the criteria of having a low probability yet is an event that will have a high impact and long lasting consequences. The signals for its potential impact were unheeded.

While the scenarios for U.S. vulnerability for the rapid spread of the disease have been downplayed after the recoveries of several American victims, one thing remains true. Ebola is not likely to come to an end soon in West Africa. In fact, the number of cases and deaths there continue to rise with an inevitability that capsizes the Singularity’s Law of Accelerating Returns. There seems to be such a downward spiral in Africa that for the foreseeable future, there and perhaps elsewhere, nothing will ever be the same again, and the “game” of viruses has changed.

How the Black Death Changed Europe

Over the course of time, there have been other pandemics that have wielded such destructive power that they changed history. Perhaps the worse was the Black Death, killing an estimated 75 million to 200 million people worldwide and reaching its peak in Europe in the years 1346–53.

“It altered the course of European history and, in the end, world history,” said Professor Tony Barnett at the London School of Economics. “Some have argued that it established what we call modern capitalism.”* If we see the marketplace as liberator, this was a positive outcome at the end of such great devastation.

Because there was such a significant loss of manpower, market economics — a force without much accredited influence until then — encouraged people to change the way they worked. Before the Black Death, the main source of income was from raising crops; after, it changed to rearing sheep for wool. That required much less manpower.

The Opportunity for Invention

Besides, the unavailability of manpower stimulated the adaptation of more economical equipment, which required invention. Until then, the State and the Church, out of fear that it would upset the social order, had nixed inventions. But their powers were weakened as they lost moral legitimacy. Before the pandemic, fish were typically caught with spears, but after, fishing nets came into use, enabling fishermen to catch the same amount of fish with less manpower. Gradually, Europe became the standard bearer for culture, discovery, and technology for the next few hundred years because of the necessity of ­optimization that all those deaths brought.

Many believe that the Black Death ended feudalism, the system of service in return for a grant of land, which burdened the peasant with many obligations to his lord. Since so many peasants and artisans died of the plague, those who survived became more particular about where they worked and wages rose.

“This was more than merely the collapse of the medieval economy. It was the death of medieval civilisation,” said American historian David Hackett Fischer in his book The Great Wave. The Black Death, it can be argued, is the grandfather of the Technical Revolution that spawned the Renaissance and ultimately the Industrial Revolution.

The 1918 Spanish Flu Was a Black Swan Event

At the end of World War II in 1918, an H1N1 virus broke out and encircled the planet causing anywhere from 50–100 million deaths.

According to a report published by the UK’s House of Lords, “The first outbreaks occurred in March 1918 in Europe and the United States. The infection then travelled via troopships and by land to Asia and Africa. The first wave was highly contagious but not particularly deadly. The second wave started at the end of August 1918 in France, Sierra Leone [one of the three West African countries where Ebola took hold!] and the United States and saw outbreaks with a ten-fold increase in the death rate. The highest death rate was in fit young adults — unusually, as influenza commonly kills the very young and very old.”1

The Pandemic that was Less “If" and More “When"

For years some scientists have warned that we will face another pandemic like the Spanish Flu of the early 20th Century, but they were few. There were “soothsayers” among the experts who predicted that Ebola would come to the U.S. Surprisingly, Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the CDC was one. He thought it was inevitable. However, he did not think that there would be a large outbreak here. But only time will tell. But now Ebola has come to New York City, which could prove to be a quagmire.

Where are the Experts with Foresight?

Poor foresight is par for the course at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where politics has won the day. And like any government office, it’s been subject to “mission drift,” wasting time and spending far to much money on neither disease control or prevention.

The media, parroting the politically-controlled bureaucracies, keep telling us that, “people infected with Ebola cannot spread the disease until they begin to display symptoms, and it cannot be spread through the air.” But anyone who has given sufficient thought to the litany knows that each clause of that sentence is subject to qualification, and the whole thought needs to be preceded with the words “government scientists believe … .”

Ebola will never become the pandemic that wipes out humanity, but it may be the stimulus that guides much more of the population to become self-reliant on matters concerning personal well-being.

High Hopes of Reform and Bureaucratic Dismantling

One of our profound hopes is that when Ebola has run its course and been defeated, that bureaucracy will suffer the consequences of its belief that it has a monopoly on truth. As it rightfully should, for its errors and obstinacies that retard the ability of science and the development of successful vaccines to stem the tide. Then, the marketplace can resume what has been taken away from it — the U.S. government has deeded to itself near complete control over vaccines — and provide economic and timely solutions to viruses, pandemics, and issues of health.


* Hoplins K. Pandemics that changed the course of history. The Guardian. July 11, 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/12/flu-pandemic-economic-impact. Accessed: October 26, 2014.

† Fischer DH. The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996.


References

  1. Great Britain. Parliament. House of Lords. Science and Technology Committee. Pandemic Influenza: 4th Report of Session 2005–06; Report with Evidence. 2005. London: The Stationery Office Limited.

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