Is Ebola the Real ‘World War Z?’ (Spoiler alert: It’s not)
(Reuters) In 2006, I released a novel about a global zombie plague that drives humanity to the brink of extinction. While the zombies may have been fake, I tried to anchor the human response (political-military-economic-cultural) in reality. I studied the history of pandemics, natural disasters and industrialized warfare. I interviewed doctors, soldiers, journalists and someone who “has never gotten a check from the CIA” in an attempt to illustrate the fragile global systems that shield our species from the abyss. As a result, I’ve been repeatedly asked if the current outbreak of Ebola is the real-life incarnation of my novel. As much as any author would love to crow about how “I predicted this!”, this time, I’m happy to say, my fictional plague could not be more different from the truth.
It could be argued that there are some similarities between the initial Ebola outbreak in West Africa and my fictional virus. Early on, there were missed warnings, such as a U.S. intelligence group’s failure to mine data that was written in French. There was also an obvious lack of interest on the part of the industrialized world. Not only were the headlines already taken up by Islamic State and the war in Ukraine but, let’s be honest, ignoring the plight of Africans is shamefully commonplace in the First World.
However, roughly one month ago, when the world reached its collective-conscious tipping point, the response deviated sharply from both World War Z’s plot and from responses to AIDS and SARS, which inspired the book. For starters, media coverage of the Ebola virus has been both loud and consistent. Try opening a newspaper, or your laptop, or flipping on either the television or radio without hearing something about Ebola. You can’t. Even President Barack Obama has dubbed the virus a “top national security priority.” Unlike World War Z where the “Great Denial” gave way to the “Great Panic,” real authority figures have tried to temper potential hysteria with sober honesty. While the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Freiden, promised “a long, hard fight,” he also assured listeners that “we know how to stop it and we’re stopping it in West Africa, community by community.” Likewise, General Daryl Williams, who commands the U.S. military mission to Africa, has declared that mission will continue “for as long as it takes.”
Just the fact that there even is a U.S. military mission to Africa is a crucial difference between fiction and reality. In my book, the main reason that the zombie virus spread out of control was because the industrialized world did not want to be inconvenienced. The United States in particular — war weary, apathetic and eager for a return to happier times — cringed at the prospect of any potential sacrifice. That might describe the U.S reaction to the situation in the Middle East but certainly not to Ebola. Nearly 4,000 American ground troops are being deployed to West Africa with a gargantuan logistics and support train behind them. The American homefront is also being mobilized with enhanced airline passenger screening, as well as new training and equipment for airport employees and medical personnel all across the United States.
Another reason the World War Z zombie plague spun out of control was a lack of cooperation from the initial host country. The country in the book is China, and I based my story on its very real reaction to SARS. But unlike China, which prevaricated and stonewalled during the SARS epidemic, the countries of West Africa have been both transparent and welcoming of foreign aid. Liberia’s president went so far as to call the actions of Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who lied on a departure screening questionaire before flying out of Monrovia, “unpardonable.”
The final reason my fictional pandemic managed to nearly wipe us out was that the global village failed to form a neighborhood watch. The nations of World War Z all acted out of self-interest, allowing themselves to be divided and conquered. Fortunately in the case of Ebola, truth is better than fiction. There has rarely been a time in history when the world community has responded so quickly and massively to a health crisis, from America’s CDC to the United Nations’ World Health Organization to a tsunami of nongovernmental organizations and startup charities. A 9-year-old friend of my son actually launched his own website to raise money for rubber gloves for health workers in West Africa (and he achieved his goal in just one week!).
Behind all this coordination is a shockingly rare bout of clear-headed strategy: defending against the virus at home while attacking it at its source in West Africa. We are all connected — that is the warning the world community is taking from Ebola (and that it did not heed in World War Z).
Several days ago, on Fox News, Frieden stated that, “When a wildfire breaks out, we don’t fence it off. We go in to extinguish it before one of the random sparks sets off another outbreak somewhere else.” Imagine if the global community had responded to other outbreaks with this kind of clarity and action. Just to put Ebola in perspective, since the initial reported cases 10 months ago, more than 4,500 people have died of the disease. While those are genuine tragedies, so are the roughly 600,000 Africans who died of malaria last year and the 1,000,000-plus Africans who died of AIDS. As an American, and as a parent, I’m not nearly as worried about Ebola as I am about the polio-reminiscent threat of Enterovirus D68.
Yes, it will be a long hard fight and, yes, there will be more heartbreaking death and suffering, but if I was writing World War Z today and I had decided to base it on our planet’s response to Ebola, it would have been much shorter and with a much happier ending.