Rarely has the idea of the global village and the mantra that the world is one big neighborhood seemed as real as in the frightening case of the raging Ebola epidemic in Africa.
There was a time, not so long ago, that an outbreak of disease anywhere in the Third World would have seemed far removed from the daily concerns of Americans and the nation’s foreign-policy agenda. Safely protected from foreign plagues by vast oceans, U.S. leaders would not have felt compelled to order a rapid response along the lines announced last week by President Obama as a matter of self-protection.
There might have been a tardy and symbolic response, if any at all, but certainly it would not have been treated as a priority demanding presidential action, complete with a significant military deployment.
What makes Ebola different is the realization that the world is indeed smaller, that modern modes of transportation — with busier travel patterns and habits — have lowered the barriers against infection. In places like Miami, a major port of entry for overseas visitors, the threat is very real, and Ebola is a particularly scary virus.
The disease kills between 50 percent and 90 percent of people infected with the virus, and there is as yet no specific and effective treatment available. No vaccine exists. Senior U.N. officials say cases are rising at an almost exponential level, with 5,000 reported by the end of August and many more expected.
Officials in Africa are plainly scared, and should be. Over the weekend, the government in Sierra Leone confined the country’s entire population, some 6 million people, to their homes for three days, an action that one news report called “the most sweeping lockdown against disease since the Middle Ages.”
Some experts estimate that as many as 20,000 people could become infected before the epidemic is under control. Others said the number would be several times higher by year’s end.
“We don’t know where the numbers are going,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director general of the World Health Organization. He said the virus was spreading faster than the (belated) escalation of the response by the international community.
Indeed, the international community could have responded more quickly, and more effectively. A major outbreak was reported in Guinea in March by WHO, but it was not until last week that President Obama announced action commensurate with the nature of the threat.
He ordered a deployment of medicine, equipment and soldiers to Liberia and Senegal. A contingent of 3,000 military personnel will help build emergency treatment centers and establish what Pentagon officials call “command and control” assistance to coordinate the overall effort with other countries. According to the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has committed more than $100 million to the fight since the outbreak started, but months were lost before the alarm was sounded outside the borders of the affected countries.
As Mr. Obama explained, as a virus multiplies, it also mutates to fight human immunology and counter-measures. That adds to the urgency of the crisis and makes it imperative for the United States to coordinate an effort on a scale large enough to make a difference.