Panic in a melting pot of microbes

Because of jet travel and mass migration, the world has become quite literally a melting pot of microbes.  But because of global communication, it has also accelerated the transmission of a panic more lethal in its consequences than microbes.

The unprecedented movement of large numbers of people across continents has multiplied the risk of transferring microbes to populations that have not developed the antibodies against such diseases.  This is how the diseases of white peoples like smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis decimated the native populations of the New World, the Pacific islands and Africa.  Western colonialism very likely killed more people by the germs it brought than by the weapons it used to subdue the native peoples.

In his fascinating work, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” physiologist Jared Diamond illustrates this: “The Indian population of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in 1492, to zero by 1535.  Measles reached Fiji with a Fijian chief returning from a visit to Australia in 1875, and proceeded to kill about one-quarter of all Fijians then alive.  Syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and influenza arriving with Captain Cook in 1779, followed by a big typhoid epidemic in 1804 and numerous minor epidemics, reduced Hawaii’s population from around half a million in 1779 to 84,000 in 1853, the year when smallpox finally reached Hawaii and killed around 10,000 of the survivors.”

But the reverse seldom happened, says Diamond.  There were relatively few local epidemic diseases awaiting the European colonizers.  There was malaria, of course, which, among the tropical illnesses, continues to spell trouble to foreign visitors.  But for the most part, the societies the Europeans took over were free from the lethal viruses and bacteria that had plagued much of Europe.  Not anymore.  Today in a crowded and mobile world, epidemics can start anywhere and radiate to the destination points of an airline map.

Most epidemics arise from so-called “crowd infectious diseases.” Most scientists agree that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS virus that first broke out in China’s Guangdong Province late last year could have evolved from microbes in animals like ducks or chicken that are kept in pens close to the living quarters of their owners. From there, the virus migrated to Beijing and Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Singapore, Taiwan, Toronto, and the rest of the world.

It is perhaps not an accident that the virus would originate from China’s most crowded and most economically dynamic centers. These are the nodal points of China’s economic miracle that also have the most extensive contacts with the world community.  It seems inconceivable that such an epidemic would break out in the poorer western regions of the country, where it would be contained and isolated easily until it runs its course.

Medical progress and the improved health status of people in general may have kept the lethality of SARS low.  But the illness remains extremely infectious.  Its mode of transfer has not been fully ascertained, and there is still no cure or vaccine for it.  It appears that close contact with an infected person is necessary to its transmission, which is why the known cases are tightly clustered in the same apartment block or hospital ward.

What seems clear is that droplets expelled through sneezing and coughing spread the virus.  What is not known yet is how long the microbe can remain active outside of its carrier.  Scientists claim it will probably not thrive in the air for more than three hours, and especially not in hot weather conditions.  Sufferers have been able to recover from its symptoms quite fast and without any special medication.  Of course, those whose health condition makes them vulnerable also die quite quickly.  But these same people would likely not survive ordinary pneumonia either.  It has been reported that as many as 99 people die of flu in the United States every day.  One-third of them suffer from acute respiratory problems.  Yet these numbers do not command any special attention.  They are part of “normal” health statistics.

What has made SARS special is the panic that the mass media have wittingly or unwittingly sown around it.  First the virulence of the disease was underscored and contrasted against puny efforts to control its spread.  Then the secrecy in which the first outbreak in China was enveloped was highlighted, producing suspicions that the number of actual cases could be higher.  But SARS’s global debut began when it broke out in Hong Kong and Singapore.  These two economic centers are vital hubs of the global economy.  These are the basic originating points of the large overseas Chinese population. Their airports are the busiest in the Asian region.  Their airlines carry passengers to various capitals in the world.  Today they are seen as carriers of microbes as well.

In time, the SARS virus will go the way of all epidemics; it will exhaust itself and die with its last victim. A vaccine will be developed against it.  A cure will be found.  But it will take a while before the fears are erased.

“When people define their situations as real, they will be real in their consequences,” said the sociologist W.I. Thomas.  Sneezing and coughing inside a plane will be heard from hereon like a fire alarm in a crowded movie house.  People will be avoiding air travel for a while. They will be skipping Singapore and Hong Kong and possibly the whole of Southeast Asia in the next few months.  Panic will further weaken the fragile economies of the region, and there will be no vaccine for that except a sober mass media.


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