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Tags: Epidemics | Ebola | virus | Africa

Epidemics in Fact and Fiction

Richard Grigonis By Thursday, 21 August 2014 02:29 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

The Year 2014 appears to be The Year of the Epidemic. Vesicular stomatis, or VS, has sickened hundreds of horses and cows in Colorado. The Chinese Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) has come to America, killing seven million piglets and dispatching 100,000 more each week.
And then there’s Ebola.
After being subjected to two seasons of the Discovery Channel’s reality TV series, “The Colony” — a show following a group of 10 people who must survive in a simulated pandemic-produced, post-apocalyptic world — one wonders why the public is not more terrified at the Ebola virus’ recent explosive outbreak in Africa.
With the medical industry’s invention of antimicrobials and viricides during the 20th century, along with the rise of the Cold War, most apocalyptic fears appearing mid-century focused on nuclear war, not disease. These fears found expression in such science fiction/fantasy post-apocalyptic subgenre works of the period as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” and Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.”
One notable exception, however, was George R. Stewart’s 1949 masterpiece, “Earth Abides.”
With its title taken from Ecclesiastes 1:4 (“Men go and come, but earth abides.”), Stewart’s novel describes the life of Isherwood Williams, the survivor in a world where most of the human population has succumbed to a viral pandemic. It is a world where people go back to hunting with dogs and bows and arrows, and literacy, technology, and vestiges of the old world slowly disappear.
No less a talent than poet Robert Frost sent a fan letter to Stewart, writing that Stewart had “found a new type of thing to write.” Carl Sandburg went further, proclaiming “Earth Abides” as the best novel of the 1940s. Novelist Stephen King was so impressed with “Stewart’s fine novel” that he wrote his own take on the theme, “The Stand.”
Perhaps fiction is the only emotionally safe way that most of us, back here in the real world, can ponder and discuss awesome catastrophes that could befall humankind at any moment. The more literate of us indulge in reading the short story and novel; the rest postpone their profound meditations as they wait for the movie version. (Although, even here, come to think of it, rude awakenings can occur: When the nuclear meltdown movie thriller “The China Syndrome” was released on March 16, 1979, it was a box office hit and the nuclear power industry immediately attacked it as “sheer fiction” and a “character assassination of an entire industry.” Twelve days later the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania. Many moviegoers then began avoiding the film, as the story now seemed all too horrifically real. )
Still, fiction is an innocuous way for an author to warn the public about something without causing a panic or be lampooned if a prediction turns out to be wrong.
Even so, if yours truly were writing an Ebola-Destroys-the-World novel, I’d have to publish it quickly in e-book form, since modern transportation systems will transport the disease much quicker than in centuries past. In 2013, a theoretical physicist named Dirk Brockmann published a scientific paper in “Science Today,” revealing that epidemics rapidly spread in a pattern through a “global mobility network” similar to the way concentric waves spread out from a stone dropped in water.
There are other, older, mathematical methods used to model the spread of infectious disease, such as the Susceptible-Infected-Removed (SIR) model of William Hamer and Sir Ronald Ross of the early 20th century (a system of three coupled non-linear ordinary differential equations), or the simple stochastic process (a discrete-time epidemic model) of Lowell Reed and Wade Hampton Frost.
But whether we resort to calculus, Markov Chain Mote Carlo (MCMC) methods, or “perfect simulation” algorithms, the outlook for the Ebola crisis is not encouraging. The protagonist of our fantasy novel (let’s daringly call him “The Protagonist”) makes an impassioned speech at the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations, claiming that, “by my calculations, on September 10 the governments of the world must isolate Africa, and, that failing, by September 21 the world will panic as it realizes the virus has spread beyond Africa!”
As the dates come and go (in the novel, of course) and The Protagonist is proven correct, the wealthy in North America react by sailing away on their yachts, or else they visit “the family compound” reserved for such a purpose, which can be situated in the desert, atop a mountain, or on a tropical island. (Former Nike and Titan missile bases are also popular among such survivalist-minded rich folk.)
Sounds like it would make a great novel — though I suspect the size of the reading public will have diminished quite a bit when all of this Ebola business is finally over.
Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

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The Year 2014 appears to be The Year of the Epidemic.
Epidemics, Ebola, virus, Africa
Thursday, 21 August 2014 02:29 PM
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