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Exponential Ebola

Here are two good things about the Ebola virus. It is unlikely to mutate into a version that can spread through the air, as some other viruses have done. And people who have been infected by Ebola cannot pass it on to others during the incubation period (between two and 21 days). Only when they develop detectable symptoms, notably fever, do they become infectious to others, and only by the transfer of bodily fluids.

Here are three bad things about Ebola. The “bodily fluids” that can transmit it include even the tiniest droplet of sweat: just the slightest touch can pass the virus on. The death rate for those who become infected is 70 percent. And the US government’s Centers for Disease Control warned recently that we could have 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January.

Since the number of known cases so far is only around 7,500, that suggests that the number of new cases is doubling approximately every two weeks. This is called exponential growth: not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… but 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…. If you put one grain of wheat on the first square of a chess-board, two on the second, and keep doubling the grains every square, there are not enough grains of wheat in the world to get you to the 64th square.

Exponential growth always slows down eventually, but the question is when? A vaccine would slow it down, and the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline already has one under development, but it is still in an early stage of testing. Human volunteers are now being given the vaccine to check for unforeseen side effects.

If no serious side-effects are found, the vaccine will then be given to health workers in West Africa. A process that normally takes years is being compressed into mere months, and ten thousand doses of the vaccine are already being produced (for the health workers). But it will be the end of the year before we know if it actually gives a useful degree of protection from the virus.

If it does, then millions of doses would have to be produced and injected into the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is already an epidemic – or tens of millions of doses if the disease has spread by then to more populous countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana or, worst of all, Nigeria, which has 175 million people.

Until and unless a vaccine becomes available in very large quantities, the only way to stop the exponential spread of Ebola in the affected countries is to isolate the victims, a task that is very difficult in mostly rural countries with minimal medical facilities. Liberia with 4.2m people, had only 51 doctors and 978 nurses and midwives at the start of the crisis, and some of those have already died or fled.
You don’t need to find and isolate everybody who gets the disease to break the exponential pattern. Just isolating 75 percent of them as soon as they become infectious would drastically slow the spread. But at the moment, in the three most affected countries, only an estimated 18 percent of the victims are being taken to treatment centres (where, of course, most of them will die).

This is why the most important intervention so far has been the dispatch of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, with the primary job of creating seventeen large tent hospitals and training 500 nurses to work in them. Britain is providing 200 new hospital beds in its former colony of Sierra Leone, with 500 more in the next few months. Cuba has sent 165 health workers, China has sent 60, and France has sent various teams to help its former colony, Guinea.

But with the exception of the American aid to Liberia, it is all woefully inadequate. Nine months after the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea, we are still playing catch-up, and playing it badly. Why is that? Aren’t the developed countries also at risk if the virus continues to spread?

Well, no, or at least their governments don’t think so. Even without a vaccine, they are confident that their health services can find and isolate any infected people quickly and prevent Ebola from becoming an epidemic in their countries. They are probably right, and so they see the limited help they are sending to West Africa as charity rather than a vital self-interest. But they may be wrong.

As Professor Peter Piot, who first identified the Ebola virus in 1976, said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, “I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India during the virus’s incubation period to visit relatives, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital.

“Doctors and nurses in India often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.” Then you would have Ebola on the loose in a country of more than a billion people, millions of whom travel abroad each year. All hope of confining the disease to Africa and driving it back down to almost nothing, as was done in previous outbreaks, would be gone.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Exponential…people”)

The Rule of Law: A Few Victories

10 August 2010

The Rule of Law: A Few Victories

By Gwynne Dyer

Naomi Campbell may be dim-witted and self-centred, and the poor schmuck she gave the diamonds to thirteen years ago is in deep trouble even though he never tried to turn them into cash, but she certainly is useful. If she hadn’t been forced to testify, nine out of ten people wouldn’t even know who Charles Taylor is.

See? It worked. Unless you were on Mars last week, you already know that Taylor, the former Liberian strongman, is on trial at The Hague on charges of terrorism, murder, rape, enslavement and torture. You know it because the star-struck Taylor gave Campbell some illegal “blood diamonds” when they were both Nelson Mandela’s guests in South Africa in 1997, and because Mia Farrow (who was also there) eventually blew the whistle on her.

It’s not a story about war crimes, it’s a media feeding frenzy about celebrities. When Campbell gave her evidence to the international court in The Hague, the number of journalists covering the trial jumped tenfold. But she has served her purpose: now everybody knows that Charles Taylor has been brought to trial for killing, torturing and maiming hundreds of thousands of his fellow Africans.

He is the first former African head of state ever to face an international court for the crimes he committed. There are a dozen others, many still in office, who deserve to stand beside him, and most of them never will. But the rule of law never meant that all the wicked people get punished. At best, some are caught and punished, and with luck most of the rest moderate their behaviour to avoid the same fate.

Even in long-established states, the rule of law is constantly being challenged and subverted. In the international sphere, heads of state and other senior government officials were basically immune to prosecution until recently – but Taylor’s trial is an encouraging sign, and it is not the only one.

In Cambodia, another United Nations-backed tribunal delivered its first verdict last month, sentencing former prison boss Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, to 35 years in jail. Duch was a minor official in the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed about a quarter of the population, but more senior officials will follow.

Duch came first because he ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where the lucky inmates were only tortured for a week or two before they were murdered. Seventeen thousand went in; seven survived. Thirty-five years of prison seems too short, and the judge actually commuted it to 19 years because of time already served. But Duch will be 86 years old in 19 years – and anyway the sentence is far less important than the fact that there was a trial.

Later this year, the trials of the real leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime will begin: head of state Khieu Samphan, deputy prime minister Nuon Chea (“Brother Number Two”), foreign minister Ieng Sary, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the minister of social affairs. (“Brother Number One,” Pol Pot, died in 1998.) No penalty can match their crimes, but at least they will finally face a court.

If you seek perfect justice, you’ll have to die first. In the real world, bringing the powerful to justice generally involves a certain amount of bargaining. Take Turkey, where the government announced on 9 August that 102 military officers accused of plotting a coup against the democratic order would not be arrested after all. In strictly legal terms it was a deeply unsatisfactory outcome. In practical terms, it was the best outcome imaginable.

Turkey is no Liberia or Cambodia. It is a state with centuries of history as an empire, and over half a century as a democracy. But it was always a country where the armed forces felt that they had the final veto.

Four democratically elected Turkish governments have been overthrown by the military in the past fifty years. When the current government, whose appeal is strongest to devoutly Muslim voters, was first elected in 1992, many soldiers felt that they had to “defend the secular state” again.

They were wrong, but much of the senior officer corps got involved in discussions about a coup code-named “sledgehammer”. It never happened, but years later the story came out. The rule of law was at stake, so the government arrested some senior soldiers.

This was unprecedented in Turkey, where the military have always been sacrosanct. More arrests followed, some trials got underway, and everybody held their breath waiting to see what the military would do. Answer: they nominated a general who had been implicated in the coup discussions as the chief of the land forces

So the government announced that 102 more officers, including 25 generals and admirals, would be arrested. After a tense staring match, the military backed down. A different officer, not implicated in “sledgehammer,” will now become the land forces chief – and the 102 arrests were cancelled.

If you want the flawless enforcement of laws that rise above human politics, don’t look for it here – and even less in Liberia or Cambodia. But if you would like to see the rule of law advance in the world, however haltingly, then take heart.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Duch…trial”; and “Turkey…veto”)

Good Luck, King George

31 October 2005

Good Luck, King George

By Gwynne Dyer

Liberia is a country where 85 percent of the population is unemployed, and where there are virtually no functioning schools or hospitals any longer. Almost a tenth of the population died in the 14-year civil war that ended only two years ago, most of them not killed in combat but chopped to death by drugged-up child soldiers. It may be the only place in the world where the young have a lower literacy rate than the old.

For the past two years it has been a United Nations protectorate, occupied by 15,000 UN soldiers. And now they are holding an election for the presidency.

They have already held a first round of voting that eliminated 20 of the 22 candidates, and on 8 November they get to choose between the two leaders. One is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who

worked for the World Bank and who has the contacts and the skills to get the country the foreign help it desperately needs. If elected, she will be Africa’s first woman president. The other is George Weah, a retired Liberian-born football (soccer) hero who never went to school, has never held a normal job, and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

So which candidate stands a better chance of saving Liberia from another round of slaughter, and maybe even getting the West African country back on its feet? George Weah, obviously, though it must be added that even his chances of succeeding are not very good.

“I don’t need political experience to give you schools,” Weah tell the voters. “I don’t need political experience to give you lights, and water, or to see that the roads are bad,” and a lot of them listen because his origins were as tough as theirs.

George Weah was born in a Monrovia slum, one of 13 children who were abandoned by their parents and raised by their grandparents in a hut on reclaimed swampland. It was his extraordinary skill at football that took him first to Cameroon, then to Europe, and eventually, in 1996, to global recognition as the international footballer of the year.

He is the idol of poor young men in Liberia, most of whom are addicted to football — and there are a lot of young men in Liberia: almost half its potential voters are under 30, and a quarter are actually under 23. That is why “King George”, as they call him, will probably win the run-off election on 8 November and become president of Liberia, but is this really a happy ending? What are the odds that this 39-year-old retired athlete with no formal education and no experience of either business or politics can run the country successfully, or even hold it together?

Better than Johnson-Sirleaf’s, at least. She is a descendant of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1847, and though she bears no personal blame for their actions it is a crippling handicap politically.

The American ex-slaves who were resettled on the West African coast proceeded to re-created the slavery society of the American south in an African context, with themselves on top.

Local Africans were conscripted into a system of forced labour, while the vote was reserved for the American newcomers (who have never numbered more than five percent of Liberia’s population.) And despite various modifications, that two-caste system essentially stayed in place until 25 years ago.

The quarter-century of turmoil and civil war that has devastated Liberia began when Sergeant Samuel Doe, an illiterate soldier, led a revolt that overthrew Americo-Liberian rule in 1980. Battles between various military groups and warlords became chronic, the use of child soldiers in those struggles became normal, and practically all of Liberia’s economy and infrastructure were destroyed. Maybe the killing is over now, but it

depends a good deal on whether the new president can convince people that Liberia has really turned the corner.

That is where Johnson-Sirleaf, for all her qualities, cannot deliver the goods. As a 66-year-old member of the old Americo-Liberian elite, she simply lacks the street credibility that might persuade the tens of thousands of recently demobilised boy soldiers with no immediate prospect of improvement in their circumstances that there is somebody in power who understands their anger and their impatience.

George Weah is undoubtedly less well equipped than Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to run an efficient administration and rebuild the economy, but the brutal fact is that it will be years before Liberia can provide either jobs or education for all those angry young men who fought in Liberia’s wars no matter who is president. If they lose patience, the country will tumble back into the horrors that it has just recently left behind. So the new president’s main task will be to persuade them to be patient, and Weah has at least a chance of doing that.

He also stands a good chance of being killed. He left Liberia in fear of his life and settled his family in Florida years ago, after the dictator of the time, Charles Taylor, had his house burned for daring to suggest that Liberia needed UN intervention. He has come back to face a situation that is only marginally less dangerous, and he will need a lot of luck to pull Liberia through — or even to come through the experience alive.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 8 and 10. (“So…good”; “Local…ago”; and “That is here…impatient”)

International Court (ICC)

7 August 2003

Why We Need an International Criminal Court

By Gwynne Dyer

Plea-bargaining happens in most courts, so nobody was upset last month when former Serbian police officer Darko Mrdja, after a year in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, changed his plea to guilty of having massacred over 200 Croatian and Muslim men in August, 1992. He will probably get a lighter sentence, but the court will save a lot of time, and maybe Mrdja will testify against his former colleagues as well.

In an imperfect world, this sort of corner-cutting can be tolerated, but what are we to make of the haggling that is going on to get indicted war criminal Charles Taylor out of the presidency in Liberia? He wants an amnesty as the price of leaving, and it looks like he’s going to get it.

The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has already lost one of its big fish, Foday Sankoh, the back-country warlord who chopped off hands, arms and legs in a reign of terror that killed 70,000 Sierra Leoneans. Sankoh died of a stroke this year after over two years in custody, but no trial. Now it’s likely to lose Charles Taylor as well.

Taylor trained with Sankoh in Libyan guerilla camps, and even before his own rebel movement came to power in Liberia in 1997, he was in league with Sankoh to keep Sierra Leone in turmoil so that they could jointly loot the country’s rich diamond deposits. The Special Court for Sierra Leone issued a 17-count indictment against Taylor in June, but restoring peace in Liberia means getting Taylor out, and it’s simpler and cheaper to do it with his cooperation. So moves to give him “a safe haven” in Nigeria began in early July.

“Nigeria will not be harassed by any organisation, or by any country, for showing this humanitarian gesture,” said Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo. He need not worry, for the Special Court in Sierra Leone has little reach beyond that country’s borders: the man who is responsible for around 200,000 deaths in Liberia will probably get away scot-free. And this is why we need the International Criminal Court.

Current attempts to bring genocidal killers to justice around the world are scattered and stumbling. Cambodia has just announced that only the ten most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will stand trial for the slaughter of the killing fields’ that cost 1.7 million lives in the late 70s. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander himself, was able to limit the trials to this relative handful, a quarter-century late and before a tame local court, because no established international authority could insist on anything else.

Or look at the US and British attempts to remove Carla Del Ponte as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The stated reason is because she is too busy as chief prosecutor for former Yugoslavia, but it’s really about stopping her from expanding the indictments beyond members of the former Hutu government to include members of the current Tutsi-led government of Rwanda. Since she serves at the pleasure of the Security Council, the US and Britain may well get their way.

If no permanent and independent body has the authority to deal with this sort of crimes, then it will be politics that decides who is punished and who gets off. The International Criminal Court, which came into formal legal existence on 1 July 2002, was designed to move the world on from that primitive system. But it is under heavy assault by the current US administration, which loathes the very idea of the ICC. Why?

The United States says that it fears that American service personnel engaged in international peacekeeping operations might become victims of nuisance prosecutions brought by the ICC, whose judges it does not control. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently pointed out, however, no UN peacekeeper of any nationality has ever been accused of a crime “anywhere near the crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC”: mass rape and mass murder, genocide, even cannibalism. The real US objection is ideological.

The ICC has become an obsession of the Bush administration, which sees all international structures that are beyond Washington’s control as potentially hostile curbs on the exercise of American power. Latterly Washington has even been cutting military aid to poor countries that refuse to sign treaties promising never to hand American personnel over to the ICC.

Yet the ICC is up and running. Its eighteen judges — distinguished jurists from eighteen different countries — were selected last year, and chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor of the Argentine junta, was inaugurated in June. There are two hundred files awaiting investigation (not one of them involving Americans), and the first case brought before the court will probably deal with the horrors committed in the Congo civil war.

It will take time for the ICC to have an impact, because it cannot deal with crimes committed before July, 2002. It will take even more time because of American attempts to sabotage it, but since US hostility is driven by ideology rather than national interest, that could change as soon as the next administration. The goal is to create a single standard and a single authority for dealing with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when local governments are unable or unwilling to act. Ten years from now we will probably be a lot closer to that goal.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Nigeria…court”; and “Or look…way”)