As individuals we all have irrational fears of something. For some of us it’s snakes and spiders. For others it’s rats, crowds, heights or open spaces. What makes these fears irrational is their inability to distinguish between the imaginary threat that we carry in our own minds and the reality of the perceived threat – a discrepancy that often leaves us feeling helpless, powerless and hopelessly vulnerable and overcome by an inexplicable and paralysing dread.
Collective fears can often acquire the same tendencies, and sometimes even more so, because sharing them with other people makes fear more potent and contagious, and more subject to rumours, distortion, mythology and exaggeration.
The early 21st century has been an age of fear almost without parallel, at least in the West. There is perhaps no comparable era in which certain imagined threats and dangers have at times reduced whole societies to gibbering wrecks, culturally and politically transfixed by fear and dread.
Terrorism is the most obvious example. Ever since 9/11 it has has acquired a unique ability to generate reactions and responses that are out of all proportion to the nature of the threat itself. These fears have been deliberately manufactured and exaggerated by governments and a self-interested terrorism and security industry, as we have seen most recently in the way that ISIS has been depicted by Western governments.
But such is the special dread that terrorism has acquired that such manipulation is not always necessary. After all, it wasn’t the US government that brought hazmat teams to the streets of Chicago in October 2001 to investigate green glop on the pavement that turned out to be guacamole, and which obliged Mayor Richard Daley to make the memorable declaration that ‘Guacamole is not dangerous.’
Terrorism has acquired its special dread as much through its imagined capabilities and intentions as it has through its actions, and something similar can be be said about the epidemics and pandemics that have also taken place in the pantheon of 21st century horrors.
In the last decade SARS, bird flu, and swine flu have haunted our collective consciousness, and images of masked commuters and hazmat teams in protective gear have presented us with all kinds of terrifying possibilities that have not been realised.
Now the Ebola virus has surpassed them all. Clearly an epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people, and which the World Health Organization describes as ‘the most acute medical emergency in modern times’ is something to be taken seriously – and should in fact have been taken seriously long before it began killing white people as well as West Africans.
But that is very different from believing that Ebola victims are resurrecting themselves as zombies, and accompanying such stories with cretinous comparisons to The Walking Dead and photographs of black zombies from the zombie flic World War Z.
Most of us can safely dismiss suggestions that Ebola might be a US-made bioweapon. Nor is there any need to get particularly exercised about the warning from Cambridge University professor Doctor Peter Walsh in the Sun – that bastion of common sense and cool, dispassionate analysis – of the ‘large number of horrific deaths’ that may result if terrorist group ‘ manages to harness the virus as a power then explodes it as a bomb in a highly populated public area.’
As always, Ebola is politically useful – to some. Rightwing anti-immigrant websites in the United States have warned that migrant children crossing the US-Mexico border may be carrying Ebola and other diseases, and a Georgia congressman has even written to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing such ‘reports’ as ‘particularly concerning’ even though there have been no reports but only rumours, and even though Ebola does not exist in the countries they come from.
None of that has stopped the crisis narratives emanating from websites such as Judicial Watch, which depict the ‘illegal alien minors’ as plague vectors and carriers of dengue flu, tuberculosis, swine fever – and Ebola.
But manipulation, racism and political convenience don’t explain why cruise ship bookings are taking a hit because holidaymakers are afraid of contracting Ebola. Or why dogs have been shot and quarantined to stop the disease from spreading, even though there is no evidence that the virus transmits from dogs to humans. Or why children in my local school wondering whether Ebola is going to get them in the next few weeks.
Statistically, the likelihood of contracting Ebola and dying from it is at present infinitismally remote, and we are more likely to die of a bee sting, a car accident, flu or just death. But as in the case of terrorism, statistics don’t always provide the necessary antidote to an emotional response that is steeped in dread and horror. In his story ‘ The Horrible’, Guy de Maupassant observed that
‘Horrible, that wellâˆ’known word, means much more than terrible. A frightful accident like this affects, upsets,terrifies; it does not horrify. In order that we should experience horror, something more is needed than emotion, something more than the spectacle of a dreadful death; there must be a shuddering sense of mystery, or a sensation of abnormal terror, more than natural.’
Ebola fits all these requirements. Even the name chills the blood, evoking images of jungles and monkeys depicted in the movie Outbreak. Like terrorism, SARS and bird flu, Ebola touches on anxieties and fears regarding our new sense of proximity to each other, and which have transformed words that were once supposed to be appealing, like globalisation and interconnectedness, into threats as well as possibilities.
Because of its African origins, it also has the very real potential to appeal to racism, which may lead to increased calls to isolate the countries concerned that echo Nigel Farage’s dimwitted proposals to exclude HIV-Positive migrants, even though doctors and scientists have said that isolation is likely to make it more difficult to eliminate the disease
In the Western world in particular, the prospect of an irresistible contagion from ‘outside’ violates our sense of immunity. In Edgar Allan Poe’s terrific short story The Masque of the Red Death, Prince Prospero and his rich friends retreat into a luxurious sealed castle to live it up in style while the impoverished population beyond is consumed by a plague called the Red Death.
Being a Poe story, their collective escape attempt doesn’t work out, because the Red Death eventually finds its way into their sealed bubble and annihilates Prospero and his fellow-revellers. Poe’s parable wasn’t just a story about an unnamed plague, it’s a story about the inevitability of death itself. Here in the Western world we have become accustomed to living in our consumerised, youth-obsessed bubble in which death always seems so remote that we can safely dismiss it.
From time to time something comes along, like Ebola, to remind us that we can’t, and then we work ourselves up into such a paroxysm of fear that we are incapable of understanding the threat we are facing or dealing with it properly. But Ebola can also remind us of something else, that we are all part of the same world, that isolation is impossible, and that what happens in one country can have an impact on another, and that rich people as well as the poor can also die.
So really folks, lets pull ourselves together about this. Let’s stop treating Ebola as a metaphor and deal with it as a disease. Let the doctors and scientists do the work they should have been doing many years ago, long before white people started dying and Ebola started terrifying us with the prospect of collective doom.
And let’s please leave the zombies out of it.