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    Thinking Like the Plague

    The Ebola panic in the American media seems uncannily familiar to me, in the worst possible way. Anyone who studies Renaissance literature for a living has read many accounts of terrible epidemics, and many stories of epidemic hysteria. (In fact, some people have written learned and illuminating books about literary responses to the plague; I can't pretend to be one of them.) Smallpox is a terrible affliction. Bubonic plague is worse. But human responses to those diseases often made them more dangerous, just as today's hysteria about Ebola threatens to make Ebola more dangerous.Of course, dangerous diseases require precautions. But there is a panicked mindset that poses as a defense against the plague but makes it works. It is plaguethink: the plague's herald and accomplice. Even when the disease itself is controllable, plaguethink can lay entire communities to waste.

    Plaguethink has two basic precepts:

    1. A conviction that nothing can be done to stop the disease.

    2. The idea that you can save yourself by abandoning the sick.

    From those two ideas often come two emotional responses:

    3. A phobic horror of the infected, leading to stigmatization and poor treatment.

    and, not often but not always:

    4. A tendency to interpret the disease as a carrier of religious or moral meaning.

    The important thing to remember is that none of these ideas has EVER been true. There has NEVER been a completely unstoppable and invincible disease. If there had been, we would not be here. There have been terrible, terrible diseases. But the "superbug" is a fantasy. Even before modern medicine was developed (and believe me, European Renaissance medicine could be spectacularly ineffective), there was NEVER been a disease where there was absolutely nothing you could do.

    An epidemiologist once told me that most bubonic plague patients were not contagious. (The minority who were contagious were very contagious, but most sufferers were basically not contagious at all.) And most of those people would have recovered and lived if they just got basic nursing care, by which I mean basic 14th-century nursing care: someone to give them food and water and occasionally change their sheets. For most people that didn't happen because people decided, incorrectly, that fighting the disease was hopeless and that abandoning the sick is the way to safety.

    Now, the abandon-the-sick idea perverts a common-sense idea (you need to take steps to avoid contagion) into something inhumane and destructive. "Try not to catch the disease" is reasonable. "Save yourself and let the sick die" is something else entirely. Leaving the sick to die alone, and running out of town to keep yourself safe, is unnecessary and unhelpful.

    It is not even a plan. "Just don't get it yourself" is not a plan, and it will not keep you safe. It leaves the disease unfought, which keeps the disease alive and dangerous. Letting the disease flourish but hoping it stays away from you will NOT work over time. You cannot keep out disease with a wall, or a moat, or a retreat to your country house, or with a border. The disease will get around all of that sooner or later. You cannot keep yourself safe by sacrificing other people to the illness. The outbreak itself has to be defeated, or no one is safe.
    I mean, Elizabeth I, who theoretically owned everything she saw unless she went to the beach, actually came down with smallpox. (Her doctors nursed her through it, and she rode it out.) even the most powerful person in the country could not throw up real barriers against contagion.
    During outbreaks of bubonic plague, people would leave the sick to die alone in their houses, and abandon that house, or that neighborhood, or simply flee town. What do you think that did? It left the disease alive and kicking, ready for the country-house crowd when they got back. And, well, that epidemic was spread by rats. Deserted neighborhoods full of dead bodies didn't make that problem any better. Plaguethink helped the disease spread. It always has.
    During the 1980s, you could hear people talk about AIDS with the same terrified plaguethink. Put all of the infected on an island somewhere! That would be as pointless as it would have been inhumane, but the people who said those crazy things weren't thinking of fighting the disease. They were offering it a sacrifice to appease it.
    Today, the voices of plaguethink are roaring on the media every day. Travel ban! Stop the flights! But those measures are counterproductive. They will not stop Ebola. They will let it plague us. You cannot keep out a sub-cellular organism with airport screenings. Of course you can't.

    If we actually want to be safe from Ebola, we have to stop the outbreak in West Africa. Letting the outbreak flourish, because we've deluded ourselves that it's hopeless to fight it, will let it remain a danger forever. And the idea that we can't fight the outbreak, which people in the media take for granted, is an obvious lie. Nigeria has contained the outbreak in Nigeria. It can be done. And in this country it really is under control, no matter how it's being spun. The epidemiological forest fire in Liberia needs to be extinguished, and that will require outside help from the United States and Europe. But it can be done, and has to be. Letting Ebola run amok in Western Africa and trying to keep it out of this country is hopeless, especially when you define "keeping it out" as zero cases a year. You wouldn't build a fire-break to keepmamwildfire away from your house but not have anyone fight the wildfire. That. Would eventually fail. So the travel ban, and the stigmatization of health workers who fight Ebola in Africa and come home, is the worst possible thing. It is the 21st-century equivalent of letting rats feed on dead plague victims. 
    Worst of all is the stigmatization, the ritual humiliation, of health workers who have put themselves at risk. It is a disgraceful instance of brave and mature people being attacked by the childish and terrified. Those health workers are not a danger. They are our best hope. "Quarantining" them in medical tents without a toilet or shower makes no medical sense. (Ebola spreads through body fluids, jerks: anyone who might be carrying it shouldn't be kept away from a toilet.) Worse, it actively takes the disease's side against the health care workers. It is a declaration of unthinking allegiance to the plague.
    Ebola needs to be fought. But it is not a terrible god. It is a pest. It cannot be appeased; it can only be fed and allowed to flourish. It is not a messenger of divine or immanent truth. It is a sub-cellular parasite, a strand of DNA with an adjustment problem. It is not a great danger to the United States. But plaguethink could make it one.


    Plague-think also seems to afflict us during other times of stress and fright.  What you describe as the human response to disease also describes our response to the Financial Crisis, for example.

    1. A conviction that nothing can be done to stop the disease.

    BUY GOLD AND GUNS! More seriously, a lot of influential people argued, a la Hayek, that nothing could be done to prevent the pain of the Great Recession.  It would simply have to be endured because any attempts to stop it would have worse consequences.

    2. The idea that you can save yourself by abandoning the sick.

    See Rick Santelli's rant about the "losers" who he did not want to help keep their homes.

    3. A phobic horror of the infected, leading to stigmatization and poor treatment.

    See the entire Tea Party movement and the Republican refusal to do anything serious to help the unemployed and underemployed.

    4. A tendency to interpret the disease as a carrier of religious or moral meaning.

    Was this ever the case.  The whole financial crisis was portrayed as a morality play about the evils of debt.  This dominant narrative actually prevented us from dealing with the crisis.

    "Plague think" is another manifestation of current American right wing ideology. Once established, an individual's ideology is rarely ever breached by objective reasoning. People become incapable of perceiving the world in any other fashion.

    They also become easier to manipulate and exploit because facts have no effect on them. Facts cease to exist.  History shows that a false ideology is the one indispensable tool of power and domination for politicians and despots of the both the left and right.

    Note to self:

    1. Develop and popularize false ideology.

    2. Rule World.

    3. ???

    4. Profit!

    If you believe it is false, you're probably not the one to promote it, but you may be able to run for office as a Republican, or get a gig at Fox News, if you can fake it well enough.

    I don't think I can do the helmet hair that Fox requires.  For the best, I think.

    Con respetto, (and pulling the rank due me as a retired stripper), you'll need a few more months on that bike before anyone wants to take a sneak peak up your bathrobe, (as you have been known to favor for public appearances...).


    But a few  hundred thousand miles on the bike, and I see you with your own morning show on the new, 2017 spin off channel, "Fox Morning Beef"


    Hold onto the boa!


    I've got to disagree. This is not an exclusively American thing. Here's supposedly laid back Canada for one example:

    ...Sierra Leone has accused Canada of discrimination over its decision to suspend visa applications for residents of Ebola-hit nations.

    Immigration Canada announced on Friday it would not process applications from individuals who had been in an Ebola affected nation within the previous three months.

    "The government views the decision as discriminatory, coming at a time when we are trying to ease the isolation, and not re enforce it," said Theo Nicol, Sierra Leone's deputy information minister on Saturday.

    Canada's immigration minister Chris Alexander had described the move as a precautionary measure building on actions "taken to protect the health and safety of Canadians here at home"....

    I flew into Tokyo yesterday, and I noticed that while they didn't have quarantines, they did have special procedures for people traveling from certain African countries.

    Yes. The same irrational mind-set applies to many other things. (See: the threat of ISIS.)

    And it's deeply linked to what I would call the post-conservative mindset. A classic example is the idea that you can protect yourself from crome by avoiding "unsafe" neighborhoods (leading to a phobic horror of setting foot in a "black" neighborhood under ANY circumstances), but also be totally fatalistic about crimes IN those neighborhoods. The East/West/North/South Side can go to hell, and I'll just stay in my "safe" cul-de-sac.

    I didn't want to go there in the main post, but well ... it's not a big step.


    I've wondered what percent of confirmed ideologues ever change their thinking, when 'objective reality' clearly contradicts their fantasy based/biased convictions.

    I also wonder why, with Ebola, Europeans are far less worried about returning health care workers than Americans. MSF said some of its American workers are planning on spending 3 weeks in Europe rather than be quarantined and treated like Typhoid Marys in the US.

    It has to crack one up that the evidence from Dallas, viz, you can run around shooting out  projectile innoculants from both ends, pace, Rand Paul... and still infect no one, is met with utter incomprehension.


    At some point, it is clear that the only potential harm avoided by quarantine is that person innoculated in the narrow window of the first onset of symptoms (fever) (following a night of quarantine called "sleep") and the consciousness of those symptoms in the newly afflicted  heath care personnel.

    using the term hysteria to insult those who insist upon precautions. 

    1. A conviction that nothing can be done to stop the disease.

    A strawman argument.

    The only conviction I have, is the lack of trust in medical science.  Thalidomide, Hiroshima and Nagasaki 

    2. The idea that you can save yourself by abandoning the sick.

    Another falsehood used to discredit those who would exercise soundness of mind and would proceed to find the cure without risking more lives. 

    Quarantining people is not abandonment.

    It used to be called "lifeboat ethics" some years ago.

    Which relates to ethics in the same way a Dutch treat relates to a treat.

    (Why does everyone slag the Dutch?  Yes, they're taller than most, but they're generally decent folk and most of them even speak English - though not necessarily American English.)

    I still blame them for the tulip bubble. You have no idea how much I lost…

    In Yonder Peasant who is he?Mary McCarthy brilliantly described being orphaned by her parents' death from the 1919 flu.

    As for the Dutch, it used to be said (probably by the English)

    In matters of commerce,

    the fault of the Dutch,

    is giving too little

    and asking too much

    Letting the disease flourish but hoping it stays away from you will NOT work over time.

    Reading this put in mind how mass immunizations work even more effectively than individual immunizations through the process of herd immunity.

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