Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

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8 Comments »

Comment by Rubin, claire

October 9, 2014 @ 5:50 am

I would add, Hurricane Sandy is surely an indicator of more intense and frequent major hurricanes along the east coast.

We now know that a hurricane more damaging than Sandy occurred in the same general location in the 1800s.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 9, 2014 @ 6:32 am

Claire:

Absolutely. You have probably already seen this, but yesterday a very persuasive report on urban flooding was released http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2014/10/encroaching-tides-full-report.pdf

Wildfire — closely related to drought, but also to urban spread — is another precursor activity. There are others.

I was mostly trying to suggest an analogy and a potential strategic predisposition as we engage this range of threats. There is a recurrent tendency, by the media but also some response professionals, to treat most “events” as one-off’s.

I certainly am not telling the Recovery Diva anything new, but it would help with prevention, mitigation, and preparedness (even for response) to recognize shared patterns.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 9, 2014 @ 11:14 am

Great posting as always. To continue to beat the dead horse until it is paper thin, we plan for the last war since that is where all of the funding comes from and to make amends for our previous failures and the “lessons learned” or not.

My concern is that we too often look backwards rather than forwards for the next gathering storm. Through various funding sources and priorities, we further these habits. If it has not happened to me, it will likely not. I have never seen a Black Swan so I know they do not exist…………….

An interesting side note: With the significant population increase currently and anticipated in Africa, what are the future public health, food, water and other ramifications?

Comment by Christopher Tingus

October 9, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

Working w/commerce/business leaders on the Continent in the commodities/oil/diamonds sector, a neat book in my book shelf for your reference and others as well:

The Industrial Policy Revolution II: Africa in the Twenty-first Century (International Economic Association) Paperback – December 13, 2013
by Joseph E. Stiglitz (Editor), Justin Lin Yifu (Editor), Ebrahim Patel (Editor), Joan Esteban (Series Editor)

In this volume, world-renowned economists and policymakers write about industrial policy, which is being recognized anew as a linchpin for the economics of development. They show that developing countries that have undertaken a wide variety of industrial policies have been the most successful. In focusing on Africa, which has a potentially great producer and consumer base for industry, they have chosen a continent that provides an especially clear example of why this refreshed emphasis on industrial policy is so important.

Enjoy reading….

A portion of the Forward:

In 2012, the International Economic Association (IEA), the association of national economic associations/societies, convened a two-part series of roundtables on the theme of industrial policy. The first, “New Thinking on Industrial Policy,” was hosted by the World Bank in Washington, D.C. on May 22–3, and the second, “New Thinking on Industrial Policy: Implications for Africa,” was held in Pretoria, South Africa, on July 3–4, in partnership with the Economic Development Department of the South African government, and with the further financial support of UNIDO and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations.

The two roundtables assembled an outstanding group of scholars to discuss the breadth of the topic of industrial policy, focusing in the second meeting on the African context. These scholars have all grappled with issues of development and growth over many years.

The insights generated at the roundtable are critical in our policy debates, and are captured in this two-part IEA publication, which is the 151st volume of the International Economic Associations Proceedings of Roundtables and World Congresses. (The first part of the volume is titled “The Industrial Policy Revolution I. The Role of Government beyond Ideology.”) Taken together, the two-part volume includes more than 30 papers selected from those presented at the Washington, D.C. and Pretoria roundtables, in addition to more than 20 commentaries on those papers, written by other roundtable participants. In many cases, the papers were revised after the conclusion of the roundtable to take into consideration discussions that took place at the event.

The roundtables were convened in recognition of the fact that industrial policy is a sort of lynchpin for the economics of development, that the countries that have been most successful in development have undertaken a wide variety of industrial policies, and that different countries can and should learn from these experiences.

Africa provides an especially clear example of why this refreshed emphasis on industrial policy is so important, and worthy of convening international experts on the scale achieved by the IEA in 2012.

The continent has one billion people: potentially a great producer and consumer base for the development of strong, dynamic manufacturing industries. It has a large and growing workforce, with a youthful population. It has significant energy resources, from traditional feedstocks such as coal and oil to renewables in the form of rivers, sun and wind. It has enormous natural resources, with a host of minerals and swathes of rich agricultural land.

African growth rates have climbed in the past decade or more. Between 2000 and 2010, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were to be found on that continent. Yet that growth was largely fuelled by the export of raw materials to the production centers of Asia, Latin America, and Europe

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 9, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

New estimate out that EBOLA will damage W, African economies by at least $33B!

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 11, 2014 @ 2:30 am

Large scale pandemic exercise for EBOLA control now underway expect WH announcements Monday the 13th!

Perhaps a real pandemic in USA just in time for November 4th elections?

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Evil as complexity denied

October 12, 2014 @ 4:20 am

[…] noted in my post last Thursday, I mostly neglected early reports of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I have given very little […]

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January 29, 2015 @ 8:37 am

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