In spite of writing a long book on diseases spilling over from animals to humans, well-regarded author David Quammen can’t seem to get his mind wrapped around the possibility Ebola has likely evolved a new ecotype, for the first time spreading into a major urban area.
The first outbreak of
Flaviviridae Filoviridae Ebola in West Africa apparently began in forest villages across four districts in southeastern Guinea as early as December 2013 before spreading to Conakry and the outskirts of Monrovia, the capitals of Guinea and Liberia respectively.
The number of deaths across West Africa presently stands at 149 killed out of 242 infected. According to the WHO, with a three-week incubation period cases are likely to continue to accumulate for months.
To date, researchers have identified five ebolavirus types. A new clade of Zaire ebolavirus characterizes the present outbreak.
Many of the human outbreaks since 1976, until now limited to Central and East Africa, began with the ingestion of an infected monkey or fruit bat of the Pteropodidae family or some such combinatorial of ecological pathways. In short, one of Quammen’s spillovers.
A human infection typically leads to fever, diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhage, and death.
Ebola is difficult to contract from another human, however. Much like HIV it spreads by bodily fluid, including, alongside ingestion and accidental cuts, sexually. Its virulence, producing case fatality rates as high as 91%, usually burn out outbreaks. Patients die faster than susceptibles are infected.
And yet this new strain has found the geographic momentum and multiple transmission chains associated with a virus experimenting with evolutionary possibilities, including a more widespread epidemiology.
History offers multiple examples of pathogens successfully making such sociospatial transitions.
For most of its evolutionary history the cholera bacterium ate plankton in the Ganges delta. Only once humanity urbanized and by the 19th century became spatially integrated by new modes of transport was cholera able to make its way to the world’s cities. There, in a kind of microbial Bildungsroman, the bacterium transformed from a marginal bug into a roaring success when municipalities began drawing drinking water from the same place they dumped their shit.
The simian immunodeficiency viruses that would evolve into HIV likely emerged from Cameroonian forests when colonial logging broadened the wildlife-human interface.
For eons influenza cycled across waterfowl populations that summered on the Arctic Circle. Influenza expanded into humans once we became farmers and our population densities and connections grew enough to support such an acute infection. After WWII influenza entered its Industrial Revolution. Billions of livestock monoculture are now pressed up against each other, permitting a new phase in influenza evolution and spread.
In the guise of a liberal paternalism, Quammen errs on the side of an essentialist Ebola instead, denying the virus its capacity to evolve new identities under new circumstances,
There’s nothing like an outbreak of Ebola virus disease to bring a small, struggling African nation to international notice…
The identity of the reservoir host (or hosts) for Ebola virus is unknown, but three species of fruit bat are suspected. One of those species, the hammer-headed fruit bat, lives in forests from the Congo basin as far west as southeastern Guinea and is sizable enough to be attractive as human food…
In all, since 1976, more than two dozen outbreaks of the various ebolaviruses have accounted for just over 1,640 reported deaths. So it’s a terrible thing, Ebola virus disease, but relatively rare…
It afflicts poor African people who live in villages amid forest and are obliged by scarcity of options to eat bats, apes and other wild creatures, found dead or captured live.
Ebola in Guinea is not the Next Big One, an incipient pandemic destined to circle the world, as some anxious observers might imagine. It’s a very grim and local misery, visited upon a small group of unfortunate West Africans, toward whom we should bow in sympathy and continue sending help. It’s not about our fears and dreads. It’s about them.
If it is about West Africans, Quammen, as is his wont, has little to offer but backhanded blame: Ebola is a West African problem.
the resulting neoliberal economic policies sought to promote growth and prosperity through structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that generally involved contraction of government services, renewed export orientation on crops or goods deemed to have a comparative advantage, privatization of parastatal organizations, removal or reduction of many subsidies and tariffs, and currency devaluations.
The area is part of the larger Guinea Savannah Zone the World Bank describes as “one of the largest underused agricultural land reserves in the world” that the Bank sees best developed by market commercialization, if not solely on the agribusiness model.
Indeed, the initial outbreaks appear within the cycle migration range–about 120 miles–of recent land deals pursued by the newly democratized government of Guinea.
In 2010 the British-backed Farm Land of Guinea Limited, now of Africa, secured 99-year leases for two parcels totaling nearly 9000 hectares outside the villages of N’Dema and Konindou in Dabola Perfecture, where a secondary epicenter developed, and 98,000 hectares outside the village of Saraya in Kouroussa Prefecture. The land is to be developed for maize and soybeans.
The Italian energy company Nuove Iniziative Industriali meanwhile scored 700,000 hectacres for biofuel crops.
The Farm Land deals are part of a larger effort on the part of the company to survey and map an additional 1.5 million hectacres for the Ministry of Agriculture for third party development (presumably for Farm Land’s potential use).
According to the company’s press release, up to this point, agriculture in Guinea has been largely subsistence, with, on the one hand, 84% of the population farmers and, on the other, only 3% of arable land cultivated.
The international deals represent the latest in a line of postcolonial efforts to increase agricultural production, such as in rice and coffee, including in the area where the Ebola outbreak apparently originated.
The land parcels needn’t be the locale from which Ebola emerged–the projects aren’t even underway–to be a part of the explanation for the outbreak. The deals mark an economic shift with multiple effects on land use and population distribution Liberia’s own trajectory illustrates.
Lisa Fouladbash traces Liberia’s modern agroecological regime as far back as 1925 and Firestone Rubber Company’s first investments, which “ignited a wave of foreign investments in Liberia that would transition Liberia from an economy based in subsistence agriculture, to a cash-crop export economy dominated by foreign businesses.”
Firestone scored 1 million acres for 99 years at 6 cents an acre. The Liberian government was forced into a $5 million loan from the Finance Corporation of America, a Firestone subsidiary, to “protect” the company’s investment. The loan’s terms allowed Firestone to restrict the government’s sovereignty for the term of the lease.
Foreshadowing Harvard University’s role in land grabbing today and One Health’s declensionist narrative, Richard Pearson Strong, a physician in Harvard’s Tropical Medicine Department, led an expedition into Liberia’s interior, finding, Fouladbash cites Mittman and Erickson, “indigenous Liberians to be ‘backwards’, and ‘diseased’ by tropical pathogens.” The assessment “became a powerful tool to justify the need for ‘development’ of Liberia’s rural communities.”
The Americo-Liberians who ran the government forced villages to send quotas of dispossessed indigenous men, totaling 20,000, to work long hours in Firestone plantations for little pay. Exploitation that continues to this day.
After WWII Liberia adopted an Open Door policy that privatized land across sectors and opened its export economy for oligopolies of foreign investors around rubber, timber, iron-ore and diamonds. More recently, the logging industry and Sime Darby, the palm oil company, continue to partake in land grabs and labor’s forced proletarianization.
“In addition to the diversion of land, labor and natural assets towards export production,” writes Fouladbash,
foreign investment in Liberia has diverted the material efforts of development away from domestic agriculture, towards these centers of production…As the cash crop economy began to generate governmental money through taxes and revenues, development efforts gained traction around these centers of production, and slowed everywhere else…
The structural adjustment of the 1980s and 1990s meanwhile favored Asian agricultural imports over West African smallholders.
Locals have repeatedly protested such policy. In 2007 Guineans, sick of shortages and high prices, organized a general strike that forced the military government at the time to block all exports, including agricultural, forestry, livestock, fisheries and petroleum products.
A year later, with food price spikes driven worldwide by commodity speculation and hot money escaping the housing bubble, U.S. Ambassador to Guinea Phillip Carter responded to a second ban on exports in this WikiLeaks cable,
The Ambassador stressed that a major economic problem in Guinea is the discouraging investment climate for business and commerce in general. He told the Minister [of Foreign Affairs Abdoul Kabele Camara] that it took two years for one American company to get permission to set up a rice farm, an issue the Minister said he did not know anything about. The Ambassador stated that the solution to the recurring problems with the price of food is improved production. He emphasized that the [Government of Guinea] must encourage farmers to grow more, not ban them from selling their product. He insisted that the GOG must make it easier for firms to set up and begin business, not make it harder.
It bears hypothesizing such a meticulously planned economy in Guinea and Liberia both, rejuxtaposing populations of people and animal alike, carries epidemiological fallout, however unplanned the latter may be.
As the poor are marginalized off the land needed for subsistence farming, but fail to earn the wages to survive in the new economy, bushmeat, as Simon and Benhamou describe, is transformed from a subsistence food into a precious commodity,
In Guinea’s forested region, protein deficit is the foremost dietary deﬁciency affecting the poor. Bushmeat is increasingly hard to come by and beef (from Upper Guinea), chicken and pork (produced locally) are sold at twice or three times the price of ﬁsh in local markets.
The more the remaining monkeys and bats and other animals are collected from deeper in forests increasingly pressured by logging and mining, the more likely Quamman’s spillovers are to accrue. And, by a growing periurban transportation network, to spread.
Should the new Ebola burn out, as we should certainly hope it does, Quammen and his ecohealth rangers are likely to miss the sources of such spillovers entirely. Given the funding around such work, it’s hard to think that isn’t part of the point.
Update 1. David Quammen spent five incensed tweets denouncing my post as “confused nonsense” from an “addled guy,” who, it happens, has consulted for CDC and FAO. Quammen hopes the “loopy post” “doesn’t mislead credulous people,” including the Ecohealth Alliance, to whom I never referred, as the post is “all abt yr political agenda & my blinders.”
The sole hit he scores is that Ebola is of the Filoviridae family, not Flaviviridae, my original typo. But the spell check, along with the ad hominem attack, is the extent of his response. The internet is now a place where that’s enough.
Scientific American editor and columnist Steve Mirsky meanwhile joked, “@DavidQuammen I fear the Supply-Side Salmonella.” Funny that, as David Kirby, Tom Philpott, the New York Times, among others, including, quietly, within the industry itself, have described the economic framework in which salmonella and other diseases have emerged in the egg industry.
Update 2. Two months later and the Ebola outbreak continues to spread through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with, according to WHO figures, 599 possible cases and 338 deaths in its wake.
Doctors Without Borders, the only aid organization treating infected patients, reports it has reached the limit of what its teams can do about Quammen’s “local misery,”
Ebola patients have been identified in more than 60 separate locations across the three countries, complicating efforts to treat patients and curb the outbreak.
“The epidemic is out of control,” says Dr Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations. “With the appearance of new sites in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there is a real risk of it spreading to other areas…Ebola is no longer a public health issue limited to Guinea: it is affecting the whole of West Africa.”