The Ebola endgame

Analyst evaluates conflict/disaster risk levels

XenakisBy John J. Xenakis

Today, the biggest threat to US security by far is China, which is preparing as rapidly as possible for a preemptive massive missile attack on American cities, aircraft carriers, and military installations. There are also terrorist threats to the U.S., but what we now call terrorism will simply dissolve and be subsumed into World War III. For example, the ISIS “terrorist” group will join with the Sunni component of the coming sectarian Sunni vs Shia war in the Mideast, while the Hezbollah “terrorist” group will join the Shia component. The Shia component will be allied with Iran, Russia and India, while the Sunni component will be allied with Pakistan and China. In that sense, what we now call terrorism is really just a side show to what will be a number of regional and global existential wars over the next 10-15 years. There’s no guarantee that the United States will survive.

The above Generational Dynamics assessment, or something like it, might have been written at any time in the last few years.

But now there’s major new factor that has to be considered: The Ebola pandemic. It’s now clear that Ebola will play an important role in the world in the next few years, and will change the course of history. Ebola will spread in Africa beyond West Africa. It will spread first into war zones, such as Syria, and it will spread into densely packed slums in megacities. For that reason, it will a big part of the coming world war. I fully expect Ebola to have spread around the world by 2030, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Updating the Global Conflict Risk Assessment for Ebola

In 2004, I identified the “The six most dangerous regions in world” based on a Generational Dynamics analysis. My conclusion at the time was that a new world war would be started by a regional war in one of those six regions, or by a global financial crisis or by a global bird flu pandemic.

I incorporated those six region/items in a “Global Conflict Risk Assessment” graphic that I began posting on the Home Page of my web site. Its purpose was to encapsulate the current state of the world, and the likelihood of world conflict. The intention was that the graphic would be updated only rarely, as world events require. The original graphic, posted on October 1, 2004 was:

Global Conflict Risk Graphic - October 1, 2004
Global Conflict Risk Graphic – October 1, 2004

Note that in 2004, I considered the most dangerous of all to be the Russian Caucasus, because of the recent Beslan massacre and because … wait for it! … Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was showing extreme belligerence toward Ukraine. That was ten years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There have been seven changes in the ten years since then, the last one on January 1, 2013:

Global Conflict Risk Graphic - January 1, 2013
Global Conflict Risk Graphic – January 1, 2013

If you’d like to review all the Conflict Risk Graphics in chronological order, along with brief explanations of why each risk level was assigned, see Global Conflict Risk Graphics

Today I’m updating the graphic for the first time since the beginning of 2013. The updated graphic is as follows:

Global Conflict Risk Graphic - October 19, 2014
Global Conflict Risk Graphic – October 19, 2014

The two most significant changes is that two items have crossed over from “High Risk” to “Active”:

  • Mideast: The “Arab Awakening” has so thoroughly destabilized the Mideast that, in my view, the Syria/Iraq and Yemen wars will be not be settled before the spiral into a larger regional war. This is in contrast to the five previous Mideast wars: the war between Israelis and Hezbollah, fought largely on Lebanon’s soil in 2006; the war between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah in Gaza in 2008, that led to Hamas control of Gaza; Operation Cast Lead, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza early in 2009; the two wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in November, 2012 and July-August 2014. Those wars could be settled with a ceasefire, but in my view, no ceasefire is possible in the Syria/Iraq and Yemen wars anymore.
  • Ebola: It’s now clear that Ebola will not be controlled, and will play a significant role in the world’s future. I’ll be discussing this issue at length below.

The World Health Organization (WHO)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under a great deal of criticism from politicians trying to deflect the blame from their own failings. One common criticism is that WHO did not react quickly enough after the first Ebola outbreak in Guinea, and didn’t even realize the severity of the problem. In fact, WHO has conducted its own internal investigation, and found that “it botched attempts to stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, blaming factors including incompetent staff and a lack of information,” and that they should have realized that “traditional infectious disease containment methods wouldn’t work in a region with porous borders and broken health systems,” according to the AP

In fact, the Ebola crisis is the moment that the World Health Organization was created for. It was created by the survivors of World War II — and it was also created by the survivors of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of people. The WHO should have reacted immediately on the Ebola breakout, and done everything possible to make sure that the mistakes of 1918 would not be repeated.

But anyone who understands generational theory knows that that’s not how the world works. The survivors of a crisis, any crisis, spend their lives implementing institutions and measures to guarantee that the same crisis will not happen again, but once those survivors are gone, the generations of survivors that come after will simply believe that no such thing, in this case something like the 1918 epidemic, could ever happen again, because we’re all smarter now and so those old-fashioned crises are no longer possible.

The critical generational event occurred in 1976, 58 years after the 1918 epidemic, when the “swine flu” panic occurred. The public became hysterical over the possibility of a new flu pandemic. Responding to public demands, the government prepared millions of doses of swine flu vaccine. The pandemic amounted to nothing, and the whole thing was a political fiasco.

So the 1976 swine flu fiasco served the purpose of discrediting anyone who worried about a new epidemic. This generational change in attitude continues today, and explains why WHO “botched” the Ebola investigation. (For further discussion of the 58-year hypothesis, see “The Iraq war may be related to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” from 2008.)

Ebola in West Africa

In fact, it’s not clear to me that WHO could have stopped the Ebola pandemic even if they had been sufficiently alarmed when it started. In the previous section, we quoted WHO as blaming itself for not realizing that “traditional infectious disease containment methods wouldn’t work in a region with porous borders and broken health systems.” Those porous borders and broken health systems would have been the same whether WHO was alarmed or not.

There have been several outbreaks of Ebola, mostly in Zaire (now renamed to Congo). In those cases, the outbreaks were confined to a few small, remote villages, and the outbreaks were controlled by blocking travel into or out of the affected villages, and then letting the pandemic “burn itself out,” in the words of one analyst I heard. This means that everyone in the village became infected. Most people died, but the ones who survived could rebuild their villages and be immune to Ebola for the rest of their lives.

Well, whether that kind of containment could have been accomplished when it first broke out in Guinea is not known to me, but it’s certainly true that containment will not work now.

The mathematics of the published figures is irresistible. There are 10,000 infections now in West Africa, and the number of infections doubles every 3-4 weeks. That means that there will be millions of infections by Summer or Fall 2015. And there’s nothing that can stop it from spreading beyond West Africa – Côte d’Ivoire is particularly vulnerable.

Furthermore, 50-70% of those infected die. This means that within a couple of years or so, more than half the population of West Africa will die of Ebola. The same will be true of other countries that the spread of Ebola reaches.

What about a vaccine? I have not heard anyone say that a vaccine will be available in less than a year or two in large quantities. Even if a vaccine were available today, could it be administered to, say, the population of Côte d’Ivoire in time to save it from the spread of Ebola? I would think not.

Ebola in megacities and dense slums

Lagos, Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos has a fairly sophisticated health system. When an Ebola patient arrived by plane in Lagos in July, there was a swift reaction. Through contact tracing, officials located some 900 people who were potentially exposed to the disease. There were finally 19 confirmed cases of Ebola and eight deaths, but the infection was stopped in Nigeria.

But now imagine someone with Ebola arriving on the train pictured above in Lagos, Nigeria, and visiting friends and family. Suppose he infected a couple of other people, and before anyone realized what was going on, people with whom he’d been in contact left town on the same train. This is not an unlikely scenario. How would that Ebola outbreak be contained?

Passengers aren’t identified on a train the way they are on a plane. So contact tracing would be impossible. If there were 900 people potentially exposed, there would be no way to identify and find them, and they would go on infecting other people.

Once again, this is not an unlikely scenario. It’s fairly certain to happen, and it’s fairly certain to continue happening.

Megacities are particularly vulnerable, because there is public transportation and anonymity. The 20 largest megacities in the world, according to Demographia (PDF) are:

|   1 | Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan                     | 37,555,000 |
|   2 | Jakarta (Jabotabek), Indonesia            | 29,959,000 |
|   3 | Delhi, DL-HR-UP, India                    | 24,134,000 |
|   4 | Seoul-Incheon, South Korea                | 22,992,000 |
|   5 | Manila, Philippines                       | 22,710,000 |
|   6 | Shanghai, SHG-ZJ-JS, China                | 22,650,000 |
|   7 | Karachi, Pakistan                         | 21,585,000 |
|   8 | New York, NY-NJ-CT, United States         | 20,661,000 |
|   9 | Mexico City, Mexico                       | 20,300,000 |
|  10 | Sao Paulo, Brazil                         | 20,273,000 |
|  11 | Beijing, BJ, China                        | 19,277,000 |
|  12 | Guangzhou-Foshan, GD, China               | 18,316,000 |
|  13 | Mumbai, MAH, India                        | 17,672,000 |
|  14 | Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Japan                   | 17,234,000 |
|  15 | Moscow, Russia                            | 15,885,000 |
|  16 | Los Angeles, CA, United States            | 15,250,000 |
|  17 | Cairo, Egypt                              | 15,206,000 |
|  18 | Bangkok, Thailand                         | 14,910,000 |
|  19 | Kolkota, WB, India                        | 14,896,000 |
|  20 | Dhaka, Bangladesh                         | 14,816,000 |

However, what may be more important than total population is population density. The following table lists the most densely populated cities in the world, with a few United States cities added to the end of the table:

|   1 | Dhaka, Bangladesh                         | 44,000 |
|   2 | Hyderabad, Pakistan                       | 40,700 |
|   3 | Mumbai, MAH, India                        | 32,300 |
|   4 | Kalyan, MAH, India                        | 30,300 |
|   5 | Chittagong, Bangladesh                    | 28,400 |
|   6 | Vijayawada. AP, India                     | 27,900 |
|   7 | Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong SAR           | 25,700 |
|   8 | Malegaon, HAM, India                      | 24,700 |
|   9 | Macau, China: Macau SAR                   | 23,700 |
|  10 | Aligarh, UP, India                        | 23,500 |
|  11 | Karachi, Pakistan                         | 22,800 |
|  12 | Ranchi, JHA, India                        | 21,200 |
|  13 | Surat, GUJ, India                         | 21,000 |
|  14 | Madurai, TN, India                        | 20,700 |
|  15 | Gwalior, MP, India                        | 20,700 |
|  16 | Asansol, WB, India                        | 20,500 |
|  17 | Salem, TN, India                          | 20,000 |
|  18 | Ahmedabad, GUJ, India                     | 19,800 |
|  18 | Rajkot, GUJ, India                        | 19,800 |
|  20 | Kathmandu, Nepal                          | 19,400 |
|  37 | Kinshasa, Congo (Dem. Rep.)               | 16,700 |
|  39 | Bogota, Colombia                          | 16,600 |
|  40 | Gaza, Palestine                           | 16,500 |
|  43 | Alexandria, Egypt                         | 15,600 |
|  55 | Kano, Nigeria                             | 15,000 |
|  81 | Lagos, Nigeria                            | 13,800 |
| 209 | Mexico City, Mexico                       |  9,800 |
| 564 | Leicester, United Kingdom                 |  4,700 |
| 794 | Los Angeles, CA, United States            |  2,400 |
| 808 | San Francisco-San Jose, CA, United States |  2,100 |
| 823 | Honolulu, HI, United States               |  1,900 |
| 823 | Las Vegas, NV, United States              |  1,900 |
| 829 | Miami, FL, United States                  |  1,800 |
| 830 | New York, NY-NJ-CT, United States         |  1,800 |

Of course, a city doesn’t have to be on either of these lists to be vulnerable. Even a small, densely populated neighborhood in an otherwise sparsely populated city could be vulnerable.

Either way, the point is that megacities and densely populated cities are going to be vulnerable to Ebola outbreaks, and many of these outbreaks will occur before it’s all over.

Ebola in war zones

There have been a small number of Ebola cases in the United States so far, and what I’ve learned by watching them unfold is that controlling them requires the following:

  • Temperature screenings at airports, bus and train stations, seaports, or at any point of entry at any border.
  • Patient isolation of infected patients, or suspects.
  • Contact tracing — identifying and isolating anyone with whom an infected patient has had contact.

None of these things will be possible in a war zone, where health services will have broken down, and where health workers will be vulnerable to gunfire and bombs. That means that once even a small Ebola outbreak occurs in war zone, there will generally be no way to keep it from spreading.

I’ve been writing for years about the coming Clash of Civilization world war where India, Russia and Iran will be our allies versus China, Pakistan, and the Sunni Muslims. Now we have to add the “Ebola factor,” which will interact with everything else going on in the world. Ebola outbreaks will destabilize more regions of the world, leading to more wars, and war zones will be the perfect places where Ebola outbreaks can spread.

During the time of the Black Death plague of the 1340s, attacking armies would use catapults to hurl dead soldiers over the walls of walled cities, so that the citizens of those cities would also die of the plague. Maybe in the next few years, we’ll be seeing some of those catapults again.


Reprinted with permission of author. Originally published on his site/link:

John J. Xenakis is an MIT grad, a journalist, writer, technologist, researcher and analyst who became interested in study and analysis of world history and how generational changes over the centuries have led nations into everything from humiliation to greatness. The result is Generational Dynamics, a technique for analyzing history and for understanding how nations change their beliefs and attitudes as generations change.


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