“When a man is getting sick in an airline seat next to you, you may not want to embarrass him by calling attention to the problem. You say to yourself that this man will be all right. Maybe he doesn’t travel well in airplanes. He is airsick, the poor man.”
— Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (1994)
When Preston wrote these words, Marburg virus, a type of filovirus, had only been known to science for about 30 years. Its appearances were so sporadic — and deadly — that little research had been done. The patients either died before treatments could be tested or simply didn’t live in a place where research was an option.
As Preston relates the gory details of two cases in Kenya, 1980, he points to two bigger problems than a deadly virus: an understaffed infrastructure unable to handle an outbreak and the effects of xenophobia on our attitudes toward viruses.
Now, we face a pandemic of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2. The difference between coronavirus and something like Marburg is its capacity to spread. In The Hot Zone, Preston explains how patients with filoviruses are often too sick to travel and are quickly isolated. Transmission risk is highest among health care workers and family members preparing bodies for burial. In addition, the symptoms come on quickly. That’s why Ebola, Marburg, and similar viruses have failed to become global pandemics.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is largely asymptomatic, and because many people in the First World are stubbornly refusing to take the virus seriously, the disease it causes, Covid-19, is likely to spread. Even the world’s most advanced nations will be overwhelmed by people seeking medical help, as economies crash from a complete disruption of our daily lives.
Our arrogance will be our downfall.
Since I read Preston’s book about five years after its publication, I’ve been morbidly fascinated with epidemiology and the history of disease outbreaks. In my capacity as a science writer for the University of Florida, I regularly reported on their Emerging Pathogens Institute’s studies of dengue and Zika. With notably xenophobic rhetoric flowing from their mouths, many Floridians panicked over the intrusion of Zika into Florida.