Friday, October 10, 2014

Ebola and the Five Stages of Collapse

At the moment, the Ebola virus is ravaging three countries—Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone—where it is doubling every few weeks, but singular cases and clusters of them are cropping up in dense population centers across the world. An entirely separate Ebola outbreak in the Congo appears to be contained, but illustrates an important point: even if the current outbreak (to which some are already referring as a pandemic) is brought under control, continuing deforestation and natural habitat destruction in the areas where the fruit bats that carry the virus live make future outbreaks quite likely.

Ebola's mortality rate can be as high as 70%, but seems closer to 50% for the current major outbreak. This is significantly worse than the Bubonic plague, which killed off a third of Europe's population. Previous Ebola outbreaks occurred in rural, isolated locales, where they quickly burned themselves out by infecting everyone within a certain radius, then running out of new victims. But the current outbreak has spread to large population centers with highly mobile populations, and the chances of such a spontaneous end to this outbreak seem to be pretty much nil.

Ebola has an incubation period of some three weeks during which patients remain asymptomatic and, specialists assure us, noninfectious. However, it is known that some patients remain asymptomatic throughout, in spite of having a strong inflammatory response, and can infect others. Nevertheless, we are told that those who do not present symptoms of Ebola—such as high fever, nausea, fatigue, bloody stool, bloody vomit, nose bleeds and other signs of hemorrhage—cannot infect others. We are also told that Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual, but it is known that among pigs and monkeys Ebola can be spread through the air, and the possibility of catching it via a cough, a sneeze, a handrail or a toilet seat is impossible to discount entirely. It is notable that many of the medical staff who became infected did so in spite of wearing protective gear—face masks, gloves, goggles and body suits. In short, nothing will guarantee your survival short of donning a space suit or relocating to a space station.

There is a test that shows whether someone is infected with Ebola, but it is known to produce false negatives. Other methods do even worse. Current effort at “enhanced screening,” recently introduced at a handful of international airports, where passengers arriving from the affected countries are now being checked for fever, fatigue and nausea, are unlikely to stop infected, and infectious, individuals. They are akin to other “security theater” methods that are currently in vogue, such as making passengers take off their shoes and testing breast milk for its potential as an explosive. The fact that the thermometers, which agents point at people's heads, are made to look like guns is a nice little touch; whoever came up with that idea deserves Homeland Security's highest decoration—to be shaped like a bomb and worn rectally.

It is unclear what technique or combination of techniques could guarantee that Ebola would not spread. Even a month-long group quarantine for all travelers from all of the affected countries may provide the virus with a transmission path via asymptomatic, undiagnosed individuals. And even a quarantine that would amount to solitary confinement (which would be both impractical and illegal) would simply put evolutionary pressure on this fast-mutating virus to adapt and incubate longer than the period of the quarantine.

Treatment of Ebola victims amounts to hydration and palliative care. Transfusions of blood donated by a survivor seem to be the only effective therapy available. An experimental drug called ZMapp has been demonstrated to stop Ebola in non-human primates, but its effectiveness in humans is now known to be less than 100%. It is an experimental drug, made in small batches by infecting young tobacco plants with an eyedropper. Even if its production is scaled up, it will be too little and too late to have any measurable effect on the current epidemic. Likewise, experimental Ebola vaccines have been demonstrated to be effective in animal trials, and one has been shown to be safe in humans, but the process of demonstrating it effectiveness in humans and then producing it in sufficient quantities may take longer than it would for the virus to spread around the world.

The scenario in which Ebola engulfs the globe is not yet guaranteed, but neither can it be dismissed as some sort of apocalyptic fantasy: the chances of it happening are by no means zero. And if Ebola is not stopped, it has the potential to reduce the human population of the earth from over 7 billion to around 3.5 billion in a relatively short period of time. Note that even a population collapse of this magnitude is still well short of causing human extinction: after all, about half the victims fully recover and become immune to the virus. But supposing that Ebola does run its course, what sort of world will it leave in its wake? More importantly, now is a really good time to start thinking of ways in which people can adapt to the reality of a global Ebola pandemic, to avoid a wide variety of worst-case outcomes. After all, compared to some other doomsday scenarios, such as runaway climate change or global nuclear annihilation, a population collapse can look positively benign, and, given the completely unsustainable impact humans are currently having on the environment, may perhaps even come to be regarded as beneficial.

I understand that such thinking is anathema to those who feel that every problem must have a solution—or it's not worth discussing. I certainly don't want to discourage those who are trying to stop Ebola, or to delay its spread until a vaccine becomes available, and would even help them if I could. I am not suicidal, and I don't look forward to the death of roughly half the people I know. But I happen to disagree that thinking about what such an outcome, and perhaps even preparing for it in some ways, is necessarily a bad idea. Unless, of course, it produces a panic. So, if you are prone to panic, perhaps you shouldn't be reading this.

And so, for the benefit of those who are not particularly panic-prone, I am going to trot out my old technique of examining collapse as consisting of five distinct stages: financial, commercial, political, social and cultural, and briefly discuss the various ramifications of a swift 50% global population collapse when viewed through that prism. If you want to know all about the five stages, my book is widely available.

Financial collapse

Our current set of financial arrangements, involving very large levels of debt leading to artificially high valuations placed on stocks, commodities, real estate, and Ph.D's in economics, is underpinned by a key assumption: that the global economy is going to continue to grow. Yes, global growth started stumbling around the turn of the century, stopped for a while during the financial collapse of 2008, and has since then remained anemic, with even the most tentative signs of recovery having much to do with unlimited money-printing by the world's central banks, but the economics Ph.D's remain ever so hopeful that growth will resume. Nevertheless, this much is clear: halving the number of workers and consumers would not be conducive to boosting economic growth.

Quite the opposite: it would mean that most debt will have to be written off. Likewise, the valuations of companies that would supply half the demand with half the workers would be unlikely to go up. Nor would the houses, half of which would stand vacant and dilapidated, increase in value. If the supply of oil suddenly outstrips demand by 50%, then this would cause the price of oil to drop to a point where it no longer covers the cost of producing it, and oil producers will be forced to shut down. This would not be a happy event for those countries that are heavily dependent on energy exports in order to afford imports of food to feed their populations. Nor would such developments spell a happy end for those countries that need to continuously roll over trillions of dollars of short-term debt in order to continue feeding their populations via government hand-outs (the United States comes to mind).

“But what about wealth preservation?!” I hear some of my readers screaming in anguish? “How do I hedge my portfolio against a sudden 50% global population drop?” Well, that's easy: you need to be short all paper. Short it all: currency, stocks, bonds, debt instruments, deeds on urban real estate. Get out of most commodities: energy, obviously, but also precious metals, because you can't eat gold. Go long people (who will be in ever-shorter supply) and arable land (because people have to eat) and stockpile everything else that they will need to learn to feed themselves. If they are sufficiently grateful for all you help, they will feed you too. Alternatively, you can just sit on your paper wealth as it dwindles to nothing, and wait for the torches and the pitchforks to come out. Since wealthy people squander a disproportionate amount of wealth on themselves and their families, killing them off is a good wealth preservation strategy—for the rest of us, so feel free to do your part.

Commercial collapse

It would be a challenge to keep global supply chains in operation while commodity prices plummet in value, credit becomes unavailable, and other knock-on effects of financial collapse make themselves felt. Since a lot of production depends on overseas suppliers, it would shut down shortly after international credit becomes unavailable. Countries that have food security, strong central control, many state-owned companies and long-term barter agreements with other countries (Russia and China come to mind) may find it possible to switch their economies into the old command and control mode, so that the few products that are key for keeping the survivors alive remain available.

It should be expected that certain forms of production—those particularly capital intensive—would disappear entirely. Examples might include integrated circuit manufacturing, pharmaceutical industry, offshore oil drilling, satellite technology and so on. Certain long-lasting forms of technology, such as manual printing presses, manual typewriters and solar panel-powered shortwave radios, would remain in use, treasured and passed along as technological heirlooms.

For many operations, different staffing arrangements would need to be put in place. For instance, ships would need to double their crews, in expectation that at least half the crew might drop dead during any given trip. This would not be as problematic as it sounds: during the age of discovery it was not unusual for half the crew to be lost during a voyage from causes ranging from blunt trauma to scurvy. The shift to double-staffing would be particularly important for operations that affect public safety in a major way, nuclear power plants in particular.

Political collapse

A 50% reduction in global population would no doubt accelerate the already speedy process by which nation-states fail and turn into ungovernable regions. Not a year goes by without one or two more countries joining their ranks: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine... Several African countries may join this list before the year is out.

Especially at risk are those countries that would be unable to continue feeding their populations once oil prices plummet. Saudi Arabia, for instance, would be quickly wiped out as a country once the vast welfare state supported by the House of Saud ceases to function. As soon as that happens, Saudi Arabia would become a particularly soft target for the Islamic Caliphate, with very interesting consequences for the entire region.

There is one effect that would be common to all countries, or at least to those who have not yet undergone political collapse: since the population would become much younger, gerontocracy would become a thing of the past. The swift die-off would cause life expectancies to plummet, but we should expect the effect to be much more pronounced at the higher end of the spectrum. In many of the prosperous, developed countries in particular, there is currently a very large bulge near the geriatric end of the age spectrum. In these countries, people have been living longer and longer thanks to aggressive medical interventions: cancer surgeries, drug regimens and a variety of therapies. Many of these people are living longer but in increasingly poor health, and we should expect Ebola to carry them off in disproportionately large numbers. Organizations such as the US senate, with an average age over 60, would be expected to lose much more than half of their members—to most Americans' inordinate glee, if public survey numbers are to be believed.

For those countries that manage to remain stable, the disproportionately heavy die-off among the aged may pave the way to large-scale economic and political reforms. Older people tend to vote more than the young, and they tend to vote for the preservation of the status quo rather than for change. This pattern is particularly clear in some countries, such as the US, where older people vote to maintain the privileges that had accrued to them during prosperous times, thereby depriving their children and grandchildren of a viable future. The demographic projection where soon there will be just two working-age people supporting each retiree would be invalidated. Other types of rapid positive change may occur; for instance, many academic disciplines, in which nothing can change until the old guard dies, may begin to see rapid progress.

Social collapse

There would likely to be a wide spectrum of outcomes. Those communities that are ethnically homogenous, well-defended, strongly bound together by conservative and uniform social and religious traditions, with a history of favoring self-sufficiency and perseverance, would be likely to survive and recover. On the other hand, those communities that are ethnically diverse with a history of bigotry, racism and ethnic strife, with weak, optional, or nonexistent standards of public morality, which are integrated into the global economy in non-optional ways, and which are unaccustomed to hardship, are likely to perish.

Cultural collapse

The cultures most favored to survive would be those that can be preserved autonomously at a small scale. Particularly favored to survive would be those that have a strong oral tradition, teach their own children within families rather than submitting them to government-run schools, and insist on internal systems of jurisprudence and governance in defiance of any external interference. It is hard to imagine that the Roma of the Balkans or the Pashtuns of Waziristan would fail to pass on their culture just because half of them suddenly die. Such circumstances may sound dire to most of us, but to these long-suffering tribes it's a sunny day in the park and a boat-ride on the pond, and they would be sure to add a few epic poems about it to their repertoire once it's over.

At the other extreme are those cultures that depend entirely on book-learning, and have a writing system sufficiently abstruse to require many years of schooling just to achieve a basic level of literacy (English, Chinese). Education relies on transmitting information from those who are older to those who are younger, and as the die-off compresses the age spectrum toward its younger end, the number of teachers will dwindle. Coupled with other inevitable disruptions, formal schooling may become impossible in many areas, resulting, a generation or so later, in very low levels of literacy. Severed from its main mechanism for acquiring knowledge, the culture of the people in such areas would disintegrate. At the very far end of the spectrum are found roving bands of feral children, speaking a language that no adult is able to understand. It is at this point that we are able to conclude that cultural collapse has run its course.

Mitigation strategies

I have already mentioned that it may be a good idea to make arrangements through which survivors would be able to feed themselves, and provide them with the few other necessities for survival.

Beyond that, there are the basic mechanics of handling the pandemic. The current strategy treats it as a medical problem, best handled by doctors and nurses working in hospitals and clinics. This strategy only works for as long as the epidemic can be said to be under control; once it can be said to be out of control, the surviving doctors and nurses (medics are usually the first to be exposed—and to die) would be well advised to specifically refuse to handle Ebola patients.

In absence of any curative or preventive therapies, Ebola patients need shelter, hydration, hygiene, palliative care and, if and when they die, sanitary disposal of the remains. The goal is to do what is possible to give patients a chance to recover more or less on their own. To this end, it is very important to do all the things necessary to make sure that people are dying just from Ebola, and not from exposure, dehydration, or from any of the opportunistic diseases that thrive in disrupted circumstances, such as cholera and typhus. Sanitation is the most important aspect of the entire operation.

These services need not be provided by trained medics. The main two requirements for such service are: 1. psychological immunity to scenes of horrific suffering and death; and 2. immunity to Ebola. The first of these requirements comes down to natural talent; some have it, some don't. The second requirement is being provided free of charge by the Ebola virus itself, in cooperation with the survivors' immune systems.

English lacks a good word to describe this type of specialist, but we don't have to reach far to find one: the Russian word for it is “sanitar.” A popular Russian saying goes “wolves are sanitars of the forest” because they take care of disposing of the sick, the weak and the lame, thus giving those that survive a better chance. A sanitar need not be medically trained, but some training is needed: in diagnosis, palliative care, sanitation procedures and corpse disposal.

A third requirement is one that applies to the sanitation service as a whole: the number of sanitars has to scale with the rate of infection. Since the number of those infected is increasing exponentially, the number of sanitars assigned to serve them has to be able to increase exponentially as well. It seems outlandish to think that sufficient numbers of people will spontaneously volunteer for the job, and this means that they have to be press-ganged into service. And a super-obvious way to do just that is to simply never discharge Ebola survivors: once you are in, you are in until the pandemic is over, or until you die, whichever comes first. If you recover, you are given a bit of training, and then you go to work.

If you don't like the mitigation strategy I am proposing, please feel free to propose your own. Keep in mind, however, that what you propose has to automatically scale with the increase in the rate of infection, which is exponential. Sure, you can propose setting a public health budget, but then it has to double every couple of weeks—and keep doubling until the number of patients is in the billions.


Ronald Langereis said...

I knew I could trust you to offer the first sane, enveloping description of the problem, its consequences and its tentative solution. Even those roving bands of feral children are not forgotten. While reading, I thought you'd overlook them, but no.
Well, what can I say more? Our authorities deem it necessary to maintain air traffic to and from the countries most effected by the disease. I wonder for how long. International law and human 'rights' will be disposed, when things get really serious, I suspect, but then it will be too late, already. 2015 is going to be an interesting year. You'll be at sea, I'll wait and see, if there'll be still be any blessings to count. Fare well.

James Marshall VI said...

Theoretical question, thinking long-term and dispassionately:
Would an island nation be better off closing its borders during an Ebola outbreak ... or allowing Ebola in? On the one hand, not allowing a single immigrant might save the island's population. On the other, they then become a people lacking an immunity everyone else has.

Reality: I realize a total blockade is impossible and, the moment word gets out that the island is Ebola-free, people will try to go there, bringing the disease with them.

Second question: Looking at it a different way, once the disease goes worldwide, might you not be better off getting yourself infected sooner rather than later, thus having better access to medical help and recovering sooner (assuming you recover), thus giving you a better starting point for Earth 2.0?

(I realize these questions are rather cold-blooded, but thinking about the end of the world as we know it can do that to my thought processes.)

V said...

You did it again!! "Seeing" by Jose Saramago is a blueprint for a response. Not a perfect response, but a likely one.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Thanks Dmitry! That penetrating, unprissy, accurate good sense. Nearly-unique in my surfing experience.

forrest said...

[OOps, prematurely sent beginning of this...]

The mortality rate of an epidemic is not a constant; and in this case we don't even know the current value.

Consider: An African becomes sick with the virus. If he becomes extremely sick, and if his family/neighbors are particularly trusting of the local health services, he ends up being taken to medical attention -- where his chance of dying is around 50%. There are probably a great many people with milder cases who simply don't get counted. As you say, these may spread the disease undetected -- but their personal zoo of viruses is likely to be less virulent, and probably will produce milder infections.

I know that retrovirus replication is inherently sloppy; I think the same is true of other RNA viruses [?] Given that, what any one person carries is not a cloned batch of viruses but something more like a related population of them. The variants that prove better at spreading will probably be better at surviving exposure to conditions outside the body than at rapid reproduction within -- especially given that a variant that does grow rapidly is more likely to be detected, quarantined, etc.

The WW I flu is said to have weakened considerably as it spread over the world over several years. It had not had unusual mortality until it got loose in the trenches, among cold, stressed, debilitated -- and closely-packed -- people with no way to escape contagion from the worst cases. It then went rapidly through hospitals where the sickest patients were taken -- but then gradually succumbed to the evolutionary pressures normally driving disease spread: If it makes you too sick to walk, and there's no way for it to spread via parasites or water-supply, it's far less likely to be passed along.

If we ever get a version that's happy inside a mosquito, though...

rapier said...

Ebola has the potential to strongly effect the financial markets which are ripe for a change of trend, down, in many longer term cycles. In general events like even wars do not precipitate market panics. Those are the products of things internal to markets themselves.

Well that's one position anyway and then too many don't accept cycles for all sorts of complicated reasons having to do I think with beliefs in causality and being able to identify cause.

Then too the worse case scenarios of ebola's possible spread are unprecedented in history as history did not have global travel on today's scale and ebola is a particularly virulent thing. So the potential to drive market and economic cycles here could disprove my singular events don't do the driving. So one can posit that exploding ebola in the developed world could make decline in commerce could be coincident with financial decline. Decline mind you not collapse.

jwl said...

Bloody depressing scenarios, but realistic and accurately thought through. I'm only now into my second month of (intermediate) sailing lessons, having just sold my home. But no boat yet. Don't see this as a threat one can sail away from, though, as in a pandemic all will eventually have to throw the dice on their immune system. On the long-term bright side it sure would be start towards a serious cut in carbon emissions.

Mister Roboto said...

One thing that I think really needs to be pointed out is that no virus that infects human hosts has ever been observed to alter its means of transmission from host-to-host. That means it is very unlikely that ebola will become an airborne infection. If it does, that would undoubtedly make this epidemic a vastly more historic catastrophe than even the Black Death of the later Middle Ages.

I'm all for some good old-fashioned doom spanking off, but I also think we should try to remain grounded in reality in doing so. :-)

Bob Dobbs said...

It won't become airborne, but the period in which one is infectious but relatively symptom free might change. Currently you start going down with it, your symptoms are low level, but you are infectious. Were this to lengthen then this would be much more problematic.
Also the experience of this disease in the west might well be quite different from that of West Africa. We have a very complex and delicate social fabric. Panic would be a big issue.
Were this to become something that starts popping up in clusters in the west then the response would be volitile and highly unpredictable. Politically authoritarian situations seem almost unavoidable. Intense anti immigration rhetoric would be a given across much of Europe and America. Curtailment of individual freedom and lockdowns of free movement would be practically inevitable.

forrest said...

"Human Yersinia infections most commonly result from the bite of an infected flea or an occasionally an infected mammal, but like most bacterial systemic diseases, the disease may be transmitted through an opening in the skin or by inhaling infectious droplets of moisture from sneezes or coughs." [Wikipedia re "septicemic plague"]

Some changes in mode of transmission are more likely than others, since they do involve the organism acquiring the capacity to live in an environment radically different from that they first evolved to live in. For many organisms, of course, the human bod was itself once a new world to inhabit.

Given that error-prone replication of RNA viruses -- We aren't going to get little humanoid creatures in Superman suits; but all sorts of more natural changes can certainly happen. This doesn't have the constraints of say AIDS; it doesn't have to hide from the immune system for long stretches between hosts. Being able to persist a little bit longer in a booger won't hurt a virus; the host it came from is toast anyway & the survivors will be the ones that can [somehow] reach another human. These probably won't, of course, be the strains that grew fastest inside their abandoned victim; but once they reach a new bod, it's a new selection race -- only the contestants will be descended from a type that could tolerate things outside well enough.

Dirty needles [that first hospital epidemic] make an effective means of transmission [but didn't produce a very contagious strain]. Mosquitoes ought to be just as good, except that, of course, there's nothing in it for the mosquito.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Airborne Ebola transmission has been attested in nonhuman primates, but not in humans. That's not such a great leap.

Unknown said...

Yes, Dmitry, that is certainly a realistic, gloomy article. But it certainly doesn't have to turn out that way. Remember SARS, H1N1? Humans were quite able to stomp them out. When push comes to shove governments will react and try to control outbreaks. They can be successful. It is possible that social, cultural changes can happen fast enough to stop Ebola. Development of home care systems that reduce transmission rates below 1, cremation of bodies and not burial, no handshakes, etc. These can work, and quickly, and low cost. Also, Ebola itself may just stop for reasons we don't understand. A drop in temperature in Winter just may kill it. We don't know; but we will find out soon enough.

Dmitry Orlov said...

You failed to mention that it may turn out that Ebola can be killed off by yodeling music, like the Martians in Tim Burton's film Mars Attacks.

pyrrhus said...

I think that an absolute quarantine of West Africa for 6 months or more is the best possible step. If ebola spreads within Africa, make that all of Africa. Half measures are stupid--so of course, that's what our leaders will do.

Glyn Green said...

One thing I've seen mentioned elsewhere is that ebola causes serious damage to the body. Even if 50% of people survive it, they may have health problems for the rest of their life and reduced life expectancy.

Most large is, well connected, island nations will probably get it in time. Small remote ones have a better chance of avoiding it. Personally if I had a large sail boat and resources I'd think about settling in the Marquesas islands, perhaps quietly on one of the uninhabited ones. They're very remote and have a population around 10,000 while they used to support a population of around 100,000 through arboriculture and remnants of these productive trees likely remain in the forests.

Banning all flights to West Africa would be sensible, but is unlikely to happen till it's already too late.

I don't want to die or see many of those I know die, but from a climate change and overshoot perspective a large population die-off would help. If this comes to pass I just hope collapsing nations manage to keep control / maintenance of nuclear installations or things would get a lot worse again.

thiswildride said...

Nor would such developments spell a happy end for those countries that need to continuously roll over trillions of dollars of short-term debt in order to continue feeding their populations via government hand-outs(the United States comes to mind).

I'd offer that it is the military budget that dwarfs all else. And since the populations will be halved...

Darragh McCurragh said...

"Ebola's mortality rate can be as high as 70%, but seems closer to 50% for the current major outbreak. This is significantly worse than the Bubonic plague, which killed off a third of Europe's population." While I mostly agree with what you wrote above, this is a non-sequitur: you are mixing up the mortality rate of those INFECTED with the overall deaths in a population among both infected and uninfected. During the bubonic plague in Europe there were whole communities who were not affected at all, either because they were immune since "inbreeding" was still the way of genetic transmission in small rural communities, or because they just never got a whiff of the bacteria at all. So it may well be that the plague was worse than Ebola is today, we will never know for sure.

ridgedruid said...

Very nice piece, thank you. Fits well with Greer's Buffalo Wind from last week.

Bukko Boomeranger said...

Mordant but trenchant analysis as usual, Kollapsnik. This is calmer, but far more scary because of its reality, than the "Ebola is a government plot to eliminate most of humanity, and any 'vaccine' will actually give you the disease!!!!" ravings of commenters on fever swamp sites such as ZeroHedge.

I saw how you pulled your punches a bit to go softly on the U.S. on a few points. No point in piling on the people who still weren't driven away by your first book, eh?

Thank you for the life-saving tip about yodeling. I am teaching myself to do it off my balcony, assisted by Swiss clips from YouTube. People in the flats around me have filed complaints to the building's tenancy council, but I'm not worried. They'll all be dead before my final appeal against the eviction notice is exhausted. I have taken to telling people on the lift "I'll yodel at your cremation, buddy."

Andrew Vines said...

I think cultural differences will have a big impact on how the disease manages to spread. For example Japan was usually untouched by cholera and typhus epidemics due to their ingrained hygiene compared to their chinese counterparts. Nigeria has already demonstrated a relatively simple but consistent approach can bring the current strain under control. Places without functioning medical systems in west africa are an example of what happens without them.

I think the outcomes in the west will be a reflection of the current state of our medical systems. Places like the USA with grossly inefficient profit based medicine will probably not manage to stop the spread, likewise peripheral European systems that have been crippled by austerity (though both could adapt if sufficient political will can be mustered). The most likely impact in the west will be changes in behaviour, probably exploited as part of the drive for more authoritarian governance. In the third world expect megaslums to become significantly depopulated.

The situation reminds me a bit of the black death, in that the people toiling for a dollar a day represent the global peasantry, and those in the west (even the fairly poor ones) represent the resource consuming elite. The black death tipped the balance so that there was a shortage of peasant labor, and transformed the previously feudal society. China is already close to running out of rural peasants to turn into factory workers for the global economy. If Ebola takes off the loss of cheap labor could be the biggest ongoing nonpsychological impact.

Howard Skillington said...

That wasn't just any ordinary yodeling in Mars Attacks; it was the immortal Slim Whitman. Well, actually, he died in the summmer of 2013. A crash program to clone Slim might be humanity's last best chance.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Even before Mars Attacks, aliens were immobilized by harmonica playing in an episode of the twilight zone. video here
If you're impatient skip to a few minutes before the end and you can see the harmonica do its stuff.
so if you can't stop ebola with Slim Whitman's yodeling, try a harmonica.

k-dog said...


By Daniel Defoe

being observations or memorials
of the most remarkable occurrences,
as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before


We are not quarantining houses with "May Technology Have Mercy On Us!" slogans painted onto crosses and nailed to doors yet but if it comes to it reading about what happened in London may not seem so far away and long ago.

I like my annotated paperback but for your pleasure allow me to present. An online copy

Jean-Pierre said...

Thank you for the Collapse Porn, or is it Collapse Parody at this point...probably one of my favorite posts!!! I can go to bed now!

Dave Pollard said...

When I worked in Emergency Preparedness I got to see some interesting DHS simulations that suggested that, if/when a pandemic becomes airborne, shutting airports and other attempts at isolation will be futile. It will be like trying to plug holes in a sieve.

I also learned that some pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu, actually paradoxically killed those with the strongest, not the weakest, immune systems -- it was actually the body's ferocious reaction to a multi-pronged assault on the body's cells that killed people, far more than the disease itself. Given the epidemic of autoimmune (hyperactive immune system) diseases in the West already, such a pandemic would/will be bad news for us indeed.

Dr. Doom said...

Perhaps a bit off topic on this thread, but your first book, Reinventing Collapse, was the first and only book I've ever had return unread, or perhaps partially read, after loaning to a friend. I had given a Peak Oil presentation to him, so I thought your book was appropriate additional reading (I had just finished reading my copy on my visit there). I thought it odd to be getting the book mailed back to me so soon at the time. In hindsight, I think it was too much for him, and the reaction was to get it back to its owner in some attempt to remain deluded or blissfully ignorant. This is an educated, mainstream democrat, not some right winger, too.

Your follow-up book, the Five Stages, would be pretty strong stuff for this crowd, so that may be why sales of it have not been what you may have expected. It is a major work, nonetheless.

It seems to me now that the fear is not too far beneath the surface. One has to be careful in addressing all the obvious symptoms of collapse, or perhaps court a backlash. At least, I worry about that aspect more than the message itself.

Fortunately, I think, most folks are still easily redirected into their delusional state. It gives one time to make a correction, and perhaps a getaway.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Billy says:

“How many people in the U.S. have ebola at this moment?”

Do YOU know? Cause I sure don’t… but, just for shits and grins, let’s play the “what if” game…

Ebola Duncan got into the US by lying, but we’re going to disregard all the people on the planes he was on being infected just getting here and getting to Dallas.

He rolled into Dallas Ebola Magnet Hospital of Excellence under his own power and was symptomatic.

He was in the waiting room, apparently with other people.

He was seen by doctors and nurses that were not following infectious disease protocols. They took his infectious blood, as they would any other non-ebola-carrying douchebag… then sent him home.

Where he sat around, apparently not infecting anyone, because flush toilets and running water, right?

His nephew called the CDC and reported him, because EBOLA! right?

He spewed bloody vomit all over a public sidewalk in a public parking lot… which was then “cleaned up” by two douchebags with a pressure washer. And the Ebola didn’t get aerosolized and blown into the surrounding area, because fairy dust, right?

He was then transported in an ambulance back to the Dallas Ebola Magnet Hospital of Excellence…. which wasn’t decontaminated for two days… during which time, many other people were transported in it… and all those people, including the EMT’s, weren’t infected either… because unicorns fart glitter…

Then 3 Sheriff’s deputies were sent into his apartment in their plain old uniforms.. no teletubby suits, nothing… and even though the contaminated crud from his apartment totalled 140 BAGS of shit, nobody got infected, because MURKA! right?

forrest said...

Key, I think, is the possibility of symptom-free cases.

That last swine flu scare -- was started by a truly deadly outbreak in a small slaughterhouse town. The mortality figures were bad enough to scare the pee out of the authorities and lead to stringent quarantine. Viruses made it out via people who hadn't gotten sick -- or not that sick -- but people were scared so we got some pretty effective efforts to get actually-sick people to stay home, not breathe at people.

If you look at how many people had detectable flu cases -- There probably weren't enough of them to have infected each other. Most of what got passed around had to be subclinical -- and generally stayed that way. Some people, even as the last traces of the epidemic wimped out, continued to die of it. Flu, after all, is a disease we've all got antibodies to -- and one that continually modifies itself via sloppy replication -- so a person could now & then catch a bug with his personal number, something that evaded his defences long enough to morph into a Bad News Bug. These, of course, went into hospital quarantine units where the critters were effectively contained.

With Ebola, well, we probably don't have many Americans with antibodies to it. Then again, our immune systems get dealt a hand of random antibodies in their initial development in infancy/ early childhood. Some could have that kind of immunity -- but would probably get pretty sick before they could crank up much of a response. We shouldn't have as many 'carriers' as in Africa, where there would be more survivors of milder outbreaks.

Most likely to my mind: Anybody with possible exposure plus symptoms is almost certain to go to the hospital, be examined far more gingerly than that first case, with everyone who'd been in close contact likely to be called in quickly. If it's actually loose -- we'll see a few really severe cases, a lot of people who don't pick up enough germs to sustain an infection (That sloppy replication, again: Many copies are probably inert) and practically no carriers.


Eddie Tennison said...

It appears to me that the techniques that have been used so far with regards to isolating hospital patients are probably insufficient.

What the CDC is saying is that the current precautions are adequate, but that we've had human errors, i.e. "breach of protocol". This is a huge assumption, and likely wrong.

There is likely something about the mode of transmission in the hospital environment that is not yet understood, and until such time as we do fully understand, then Ebola should be treated as an airborne, whether it is or not.

clive mossmoon said...

Why are you guys trusting the test results for ebola? Aren't they being shipped right off to the CDC? Especially since this ebola breakout serves larger goals like Medical Marshall Law etc, etc.

I don't know how these people would control a virus like ebola. They easiest way would be if it doesn't exist at all. I'm extremely skeptical.

The WHO claims that, globally, there are between 3 and 5 million cases of ordinary flu every year, and between 250,000 and 500,000 people die, no one bats an eye. Yet for ebola there is a massive "Ebola is real" PR campaign in Africa. Why do these people have to be convinced?

I don't know. There's always the text, and then there's the metatext.

Unknown said...

Living in the country with the world's largest Muslim population (Indonesia) I naturally zeroed in on what will likely be the most spectacular vector for the transmission of this virus: the Hajj.

With swarms of mostly uneducated and not particularly hygienic citizens (mostly from Africa and Asia) cycling through Mecca and then proudly returning to their home villages as Haji, the chances of ultra-efficient spread are amazingly boosted.

Following contact with fellow Muslims at the Ka'aba, it's back on the jumbo and head for home - 2~3 weeks later bingo. The whole village comes down with the reward.

BONUS: The faithful consider it especially holy to die on the pilgrimage to Mecca. I wonder if that charming belief extends to infectious disease. Got to go check it out in the old Koran.

jemand said...

Well, at least press gang the men for 90 days, so you do not have continued transmission such as this:

Since the semen of recovered men can be infective for up to 90 days, and we know how effective "just use a condom" has been via the aids epidemic.... Plus more workers are needed to build / staff units. So two things at once, cut down on a (perhaps small, but extremely difficult to track, especially if spread through prostitutes or long distances) transmission method, and have more workers, and time limited so the men know they will eventually get out and should work hard.

Mister Roboto said...

David Lindorff writing at his website makes the excellent point that the plantation mentality that characterizes the USA's treatment of its working class (not to mention the for-profit healthcare system) pretty much guarantees a wildfire ebola epidemic in this country should the disease get a foothold here. Okay, now I'm worried.

Dave S. Nottier said...

Currently the main mechanism for contracting the Ebola virus is by hunting, preparing and eating contaminated wild game meat.

The virus is found in fruit bats, rats, monkeys and pigs (and possibly more mammals that have not yet been identified as natural reservoirs). All of these animals appear on the soup menu in many open air restaurants in the affected countries.

As Peter Jahrling says, '"In this epidemic, it would appear that there have been multiple introductions [of the virus from animals to humans]. It's not all person to person transmission. It's coming from animals again and again."

But you won't hear that from the 24/7 news outlets who need the hype to sell commercials.

Dave S. Nottier said...

An excellent 12 minute TED talk on the role of Bush Meat as a vector for virus transmission into the human population.


Here is something FYI

Read the comments too!!

Draw your own conclusions, but do some research beforehand, it might save you a lot of worry.

John said...

Allow me to clarify a couple technical points

1) In regard: “evolutionary pressure on this fast-mutating virus to adapt and incubate longer than the period of the quarantine.”

This incorrectly implies that the “pressure” causes the critical change. This is not the case. The “pressure” involved is “selection pressure.” Mutations, the critical changes, are occurring randomly by physical, chemical and biochemical mechanisms completed independent of the quarantine regime. The quarantine simply “selects” for those mutant strains that have remained undetectable during the quarantine and then become detectable, cause symptoms, e.g., only after the infected person has been released from quarantine.

2) In regard: “infecting young tobacco plants” implies that tobacco plants are infected with Ebola virus. This not the case. Infection is by a tobacco-specific virus which has had incorporated into its genetic material the genes for antibodies that react against the Ebola virus. The tobacco virus thus directs production of anti-Ebola antibodies in tobacco cells. The antibodies are isolated, purified and injected into infected patients who are thus protected, it is intended, by “passive immunity,” the same mechanism that protects those who receive blood from Ebola survivors.

Their is no quibble over the proposed mitigation strategy except I expect it would take no shorter a time to be established effectively than was the surmise about generating a vaccine, i.e., it “may take longer than it would for the virus to spread around the world.”

John Puma

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thanks for the nitpicks. That's what I meant. I just had to keep it short.

Stephen said...

The true mortality rate is not 50% comparing the number infected to the number dead gives you an artificially low mortality rate because the disease is spreading so quickly most infections have not run there course. If you look at 4 week old infections that have run there course the mortality rate is the typical 70% you expect from Ebola and those unrecorded cases that don't get treatment likely have the earlier mortality rates of 90%. To become part of the official death and infection toll you must go to a hospital and have a blood test as all that scene is in chaos and overwhelmed The WHO estimates that for every 2 official cases 3 go unreported without treatment. Over recent weeks that ratio has likely increased as Med staff have become even more overwhelmed most of the foreign troops have not arrived yet and when they do will be a drop in the bucket against an epidemic which is likely already doubling every two weeks mostly unrecorded in official numbers. The official figures that show a slow down in the exponential curve are there simply because they have reached there limits in the numbers of patients they can diagnose the true numbers are likely doing the opposite and accelerating to a shorter doubling time probably less than 2 weeks.

Tom Hubbard, Esq. said...

Excellent analysis, as usual, concerning a hypothetical pandemic. But worth factoring: The Ebola hoax: questions, answers, and the false belief in the “One It”.

Because if people are getting sick and dying, it's got to be a virus, right? Just like HIV? Oops, Liam Scheff does a pretty nifty job with that in "Official Stories: Counter-Arguments for a Culture in Need," also highly recommended.

seha alturk said...

The wheels of divine justice are running, albeit slowly, for the mankind who feels compelled to eat everything and anything that has four legs!