The truly remarkable thing about Outbreak is that it was published in 1987 bang in the midst of the global AIDS crisis. Presumably, the medical thriller writer wanted to place in front of his readers something even more cataclysmic than HIV, something that killed humans with surprising rapidity and resolve. Even in times when AIDS was feared for its utter finality, it suggested a slow, though irrevocable passage towards death.
Ebola, named after an eponymous river in the DRC has come to revisit us again in 2014 and now despite being contained will continue to give the jitters to the medical authorities and governments across the globe. Ebola has been known since 1976 when it wiped out an entire village in the Zaire region. In some of the earliest cases, having had, its destructive fill the demon just evaporated leaving no trace for the scientists who turned up to investigate in its aftermath.
Robin Cook in this early work from 1987 does a remarkable job even for as late as 2014 of giving the basic background information on Ebola, its symptoms and its furious pace before building up the suspense and the drama.
In 2014, the international press divided the Ebola drama through two split narratives- one as Ebola in its native scenarios in countries like Liberia and Tanzania, and the other in the developed world. On the one hand we have the dark and primitive world of Africa which spews mysterious vermin that may threaten the world’s well-being, and on the other hand the sharp medical management in the west capable of dealing with the worst forms of virus.
Try as you might, it is difficult to escape the mythic nature of the medical imagery, of Africa as forever the problem and the west as the enlightened counterpart which always has a solution to offer.
It may be easy to turn Ebola into a metaphor for Africa! But is one willing to see small pox as a metaphor for western imperialism, the Spaniards specifically, which deliberately gifted it to the natives of the new world killing millions of them like flies with the help of infected blankets?
As against this, Cook’s novel occupies a neutral and innocent territory- even as it mentions several early episodes from the Ebola fever outbreaks by way of brushing up the readers’ general knowledge, it confines itself to the civilised US soil where samples of the virus have been stored in an imaginary government research institution.
As is often the case with Cook, he invents his own devils away from Africa and very much within the American medical profession- in this case a lobby of wealthy private medical practitioners, political conservatives who aim to destroy the hospitals based on medical insurance.
And then of course a psychopath scientist hired by them along with professional goons and murderers who will go to any lengths to serve the mad cause.
The protagonists, a young female physician new to virology research discovers that the sporadic attacks of Ebola in large US hospitals are getting their virus strain from no other place but a government research facility.
Was Robin Cook prescient in writing about Ebola in the mid-1980s? Definitely, if one sees Ebola as a scourge and a politico-military weapon. But as should be the case with a good thriller or indeed fiction of any kind, Cook’s warning is sufficiently veiled to the point of being implicit.
Does the novel connect with Africa in any manner? Certainly not except when it discusses the original episodes in a journalistic style.
Does the story entangle Africa in the remotest possible way? Only, implicitly in that it makes clear that quick executive and medical action, measures like quarantining and isolation work quite effectively for Ebola unlike let’s say a virulent flu epidemic. To put it differently, it’s a relief to know that our common cold is not a killer or rather than we humans have evolved to take the virus in our stride as no more than a nuisance.
First published in 1987 in the UK by Macmillan London Ltd. Present edition- Pan Macmillan, India, 2006.