Ebola and Cooperation

The improbable but still possible black swan, popularized in book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Taleb.

The current controversy about how to deal with Ebola in America tells us a lot about America, and very little about Ebola. In an excellent blog, Scott Alexander discusses how Ebola has become the latest battleground between the ‘red tribe’ and the ‘blue tribe’…

I don’t belong to either red or blue tribe. And this blog is resolutely non-political and non-partisan. Yet I agree with Christie. In fact, in the previous blog (published before the New Jersey quarantine was announced) I wondered why such a sensible precaution as imposing quarantine on travelers from the West African countries afflicted with the Ebola epidemic was not in place by the time Dr. Craig Spencer came back to New York.

Folks, it’s true that the chances that Ebola will develop into a catastrophic epidemic in the United State are indeed not very high. But they are not zero. We really don’t know as much about Ebola, or epidemics in general, as we may think. If we really understood Ebola, then why did Craig Spencer or Amber Vinson (the Dallas nurse who cared for the first patient in the US to die of Ebola) become infected? Surely they took all the necessary precautions.

Small probability events do happen. They are Black Swans…

Suppose that the chance of an Ebola epidemic in the US is 1 percent, and it’s a relatively mild one, as they go, say, it will kill 10,000 people. That’s the mathematical expectation of 100 deaths. Balanced against 100 human lives, what’s 21 days spent in isolation by Kaci Hickox and by other travelers from West Africa, including medical professionals (who are not really great in numbers)?…

Kaci Hickox and boyfriend Ted Wilbur go for a bike ride in Fort KentKaci Hickox (L) and boyfriend Ted Wilbur go for a bike ride in Fort Kent, Maine October 30, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Ashley L. Conti

Related: Bike-riding nurse defies Ebola quarantine, on collision course with governor: (Reuters) – A nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone but has tested negative for the virus went for a bike ride on Thursday, defying Maine’s order that she be quarantined in her home and setting up a legal collision with Governor Paul LePage.

Attorneys for Kaci Hickox, 33, said they had not yet been served with a court order to enforce the 21-day quarantine – matching the virus’s maximum incubation period – but remained prepared to fight such an order if necessary.

The quarantine showdown between Hickox and Maine has become the focal point of a struggle between several U.S. states opting for stringent measures to guard against Ebola and a federal government wary of discouraging potential medical volunteers.