Ebola’s been one of pop culture’s favourite doomsday scenarios for decades. Thanks to Hollywood, everyone has a vivid idea of what an outbreak ought tolook like. It starts with a poor sod – our ‘Patient Zero’ – who hops on a connecting flight and spreads the bug around the world. More and more people contract it, shrieking horribly as their organs are liquefied. Soon, most of humanity is finished. The streets are deserted. Our new overlords are zombies and hyper-intelligent chimps. Hurrah!
Unfortunately for all you spam-hoarding preppers, real-world Ebola isn’t that contagious. Even this year’s record outbreak in West Africa hasn’t had a huge death toll compared to old, unglamorous malaria and cholera. (In the same span of months, Zimbabwe’s 2008 cholera epidemic killed four times as many people.) And that’s before we get to something violently catchy like Spanish Flu, which infected a third of humankind within a year and caused more deaths than the First World War.
That should end the argument. But, as I wrote last year, deadly infectious diseases are one of the holy grails of xenophobic political fantasy. Viruses make a nasty, effective metaphor for immigration – as the far Right understands it – and as soon as one germ becomes passé there’s always another waiting to take its place on the Great Fear Treadmill.
Enter Ebola, the latest obsession of reactionary xenophobes everywhere. In April, Italian far Right groups jumped on stories of the outbreak in West Africa and reworked them into crazed rumours that boat refugees had brought the virus into Tuscany. Their conspiracy theories accusing Italy’s government of covering up an immigrant-borne epidemic were quickly spread by US wingnut havens like InfoWars and SHTFPlan.com (the last of which will conveniently sell you survival foods, respirators and silver bullion to survive the Ebolapocalypse). As of this month, outlets like Breitbart.com and the Sunday Express are still running scare stories about Ebola-ridden immigrants in Europe. Their main scapegoats, oddly, are Libyan and Eritrean refugees who have little – if any – connection to West Africa at all.
Meanwhile, the most interesting xenophobe reaction has come from the founder of France’s Front National party, Jean Marie Le Pen. At a banquet in May, Le Pen ranted against the ‘migratory invasion’ of France by Muslims, which he blamed on a global ‘population explosion.’
Then came the wisecrack: ‘Monsieur Ebola could sort that out in three months.’
That particular right-wing fantasy has a long, remarkable heritage. In 1910, Jack London wrote a sci-fi story called ‘The Unparalleled Invasion’. It borrowed a memorable trope HG Wells had invented in The War of the Worlds: the idea of bacteria as a deus ex machina, emerging suddenly to fell the unbeatable Martian tripods.
Except Jack London’s invaders weren’t Martians but Chinese. His tale imagines a future year 1976, when an expansionist China ‘slowly and insidiously’ occupies countries with immigrants before sending a ‘monster army of militia-soldiers’ to invade them. China’s ‘real danger lay in the fecundity of her loins,’ London writes.
It only gets worse for the West:
There was no combating China’s amazing birth rate. If her population was a billion, and increasing twenty millions a year, in twenty-five years it would be a billion and a half – equal to the total population of the world in 1904. And nothing could be done. There was no way to dam up the over-spilling monstrous flood of life. War was futile. China laughed at a blockade of her coasts. She welcomed invasion. In her capricious maw was room for all the hosts of earth that could be hurled at her. And in the meantime her flood of yellow life poured out and on over Asia. China laughed and read in their magazines the learned lucubrations of the distracted Western scholars.
The Americans finally win by dropping glass cylinders full of mosquitoes over Beijing. Six weeks later, the city’s entire population is dead.
Had there been one plague, China might have coped with it. But from a score of plagues no creature was immune. The man who escaped smallpox went down before scarlet fever. The man who was immune to yellow fever was carried away by cholera; and if he were immune to that, too, the Black Death, which was the bubonic plague, swept him away. For it was these bacteria, and germs, and microbes, and bacilli, cultured in the laboratories of the West, that had come down upon China in a rain of glass.
Soon, the former Middle Kingdom is an empty wasteland inhabited only by ‘dogs and desperate bandits.’ Even these are systematically put to death according to America’s ‘great task, the sanitation of China.’
It’s a sick, wretched fantasy, though judging by the threads on Free Republic, it’s the sick, wretched fantasy of quite a few Tea Party Americans. Last October, when the LA Times reported on a possible MERS risk to Mecca pilgrims, one Freeper replied: ‘While horrible in one sense I might find the quick death or even just loss of ability to reproduce of a large part of the Muslim world to be a beneficial thing.’
For bitter rank-and-file Freepers, there’s no dream like the dream of an entire opposing civilization disappearing in an anti-Rapture – of a Virus Ex Machina annihilating those ominous birth-rates in the twinkling of an eye.
Jack London set down his genocidal vision 66 years before anyone had heard of Le Pen’s ‘Monsieur Ebola’. The narrative has changed so little after a whole century that it hardly matters which germ it’s about. Perhaps the next generation of Freepers and Le Pen supporters will fantasise about swarming nanites reducing Mecca and Beijing to puddles of grey goo. Or they’ll fret that boat refugees are carrying the same killer nanotech into Europe – for viruses, for the xenophobe, are always a double-edged sword.