In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.
Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).
Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.
The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited (all played by well known actors) from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or press elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.
Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.
In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.
What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?
The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.