Microbes unite!

The depression hits me on a warm and humid Bangkok evening. I am just through with dinner in the city's crowded Sukhumvit business district, my head full of the war on Iraq, and I spot these people – people with masks on their faces.

A couple of weeks ago anybody with a cloth covering his or her face in this city would have been branded a jihadi, a possible Arab/Muslim/dark-skinned/dark-intentioned 'terrorist'. The city had been on alert well before the war on Iraq started to prevent 'Arab looking' people from doing bad things – for eg, looking Arab. Just around the time of the Anglo-American attack on Iraq, if an 'Arab' had been seen behind a mask in Bangkok the entire city would have been evacuated.

Apparently, not anymore. Respectable people wear masks now in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In fact, they say wearing a mask is mandatory to save yourself from SARS – the flu-like virus that has much of South East Asia in deep panic. Tourists are cancelling their trips in droves, schools are closing down, economies plunging, governments in crisis and the Chinese – oh those 'super-contaminating Chinese' – are being spurned everywhere.

Suddenly, an irrational panic grips me: there is no escape. If the Apostles of Armageddon running the White House do not get you, some mysterious, malevolent microbes will. For a fleeting moment, a deep frozen moment, I lose hope. We are finished. They will get us one way or the other. This is what the new/old colonial world order is going to be all about – complete helplessness for us common citizens. Caught between SARS and their wars the only safe place is soon going to be – you guessed right – on planet Mars.

Yes, the people I saw wearing those masks have a right to protect themselves. I will not mock them in any way. To paraphrase Voltaire, I do not believe these masks medically help them in any way but I will defend to the death their right to wear them. And then there are so many of them out there who deserve to have a mask fixed on their faces anyway (so we will not have to 'read their bloody lips').

Yes, there are these microbes and many of them are dangerous. Yes, people have died and still continue to do so. And it is indeed true we really do not know which way this pandemic is going to turn out. There are constant references to the great influenza outbreak after the first world war, which killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people. Is SARS going to be that big? I am no kin to any Indian sage and I cannot predict such things. But I am betting that neither the 'medical experts' nor the 'media' can give us a real idea of what is going to happen. At this stage, given the sparse information on hand about SARS, it is all idle speculation – an activity that some people usually make lots of money out of.
Even assuming the deeply depressing thought that much of humanity is going to be wiped out by SARS over the next year (that is what the media is making it sound like), let us take a step back from this approaching abyss, take a deep breath (go ahead, do it while it is still safe) and reflect on a few questions about other aspects of this pandemonium of a pandemic.

First the context: why are we so full of fear only of these microbes and not of those dozen other ways in which people die completely avoidable deaths?

To anyone who is not already aware of these facts let me spell them out:

•250,000 to 500,000 people die every year around the world due to ordinary influenza, the common 'garden variety' flu. In the United States alone, with a vaccine and medical care available, flu kills 36,000 people every year.
•Anywhere between one to 2.7 million people die every year due to malaria, a vast majority in Africa, many of whom are children.
•Tuberculosis kills two million people every year, 98 percent of whom live in developing countries.
•HIV/AIDS claimed 3 million lives in 2002, including those of an estimated 610,000 children.
•Traffic accidents kill 300,000 people every year in Asia alone.
•The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq killed at least 10-15,000 Iraqi soldiers and over 2300 Iraqi civilians in its first two weeks and perhaps several hundred British and American troops.

And I am not even counting those millions who die of poverty and malnutrition around the globe annually. Every year the Indian media attributes hundreds of deaths to the 'cold wave', 'the heat wave', 'too much rain' and 'too little rain'. The fact is these deaths have nothing to do with the weather – people die every hour, wantonly, in perfectly good weather. We all know why. I say this: if we choose to cover our faces, let it be in anger and in shame – not just due to some microbes.

Here are the numbers of SARS cases worldwide and deaths between when the disease is supposed to have broken out in southern China around 1 November 2002 and end-April. In the six months since the outbreak a total of 4439 cases of SARS and 'suspected' SARS have been recorded in 26 countries and 263 people have died. The mortality rate due to SARS is estimated to be between 3 and 4 percent – just above that of normal influenza – but even this is not confirmed because the total number of real SARS cases is not yet known. Nor is its exact method of transmission clearly understood – which is why wearing masks may not be a useful precaution at all.

The medical establishment: the SARS alarm bells started ringing only when the World Health organisation (WHO) issued a global alert in mid-March. A war of words broke out soon between the WHO and the Chinese health authorities – the latter being accused of 'hiding information' about SARS in its first few months. The Chinese said something back, which nobody understood (they are never going to be a 'superpower' this way).

One of the big critiques of bodies such as the WHO from health activists has been of the way the global health body has adopted a purely 'vertical' approach to global health problems at the cost of a sustained, holistic and long-term approach. So whenever there is an outbreak, or more usually an outcry, about a particular disease, WHO and other global health officials organise a 'posse', mobilise some resources, and ride into the wilderness ready to 'lasso' the villain.  Once the 'critter' is temporarily caught or suppressed the issue is then mostly forgotten.

There is no attempt to even address the underlying causes of new viruses and diseases emerging for example, due to super-intensive techniques of animal husbandry, recycling of animal offal in animal feed, the use of a variety of artificial hormones and growth-enhancers, and, of course, effects from biological warfare experiments. Nor is there any attempt to mitigate the conditions, such as overcrowding, poverty and lack of housing infrastructure, under which infectious diseases such as SARS spread so rapidly. The WHO has failed to push policies that tackle other basic social and economic determinants of public health – such as conflict, environmental pollution and privatisation of health care.

The media: has anybody really asked how much of the SARS scare is due to the media's penchant for simplistic, alarmist reporting? One of the first 'big' SARS cases to make headlines was that of Johnny Cheng, a Chinese-American businessman who died at a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, after flying in from Hong Kong. In late March, Hanoi was one of the 'epicentres' of the SARS pandemic, going by media reports. No more. The country seems to have slipped down the hit list of 'no go' places with just 63 reported SARS cases and five deaths.

How did this 'super-contagious', 'killer' disease get contained in a crowded country like Vietnam with a very average public health system? Nobody in the media is following the Vietnam story anymore because that is not on the map of the globe-trotting elites. But Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto are on that map, hence the panic about viruses travelling on the business class seat next to them. (If nothing else, maybe there is a great 'success story' out there in Vietnam, with details of how a poor, third world country has successfully contained this deadly new infectious disease.)

And what happened to the media follow-up to the various other health scares we have had in the past decade all around the globe? Bubonic plague in India, Ebola in Africa, the Mad Cow Disease in the UK (I won't take a dig at Tony B on this one)? And why was there virtually no coverage in the 'international media' of the influenza outbreak in Madagascar in mid-2002, where more than 27,000 cases were reported within three months and 800 deaths occurred despite rapid intervention?

There is an apocryphal story going around about how much of a 'media thing' the SARS scare probably is. The question asked is why this new form of flu is being called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome? 'Severe' and 'Acute' – two synonymous terms together – why? Apparently the term 'Severe' was added (only in early March) to avoid an awkward acronym resulting from what was originally dubbed the Acute Respiratory Syndrome? What's the secret here: cover your face and save your —?

That story is probably just a bad joke, but let me tell you, I think so is the way the entire SARS scare is being reported and played out. I am not saying that the deaths due to SARS are not a real, serious tragedy or that it could not turn into a dangerous pandemic. Far from it. There is no moral mathematics involved here, please. Every human life is precious – Iraqi or American, Chinese or Singaporean. A very unique, irreplaceable universe of its own disappears forever with each physical death. All I am pleading for is some more perspective. Why are those dying of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and poverty in most developing countries every day not making the headlines? Is it not because those who die unseen, unheard, untreated are not in the same league as the Gold Card-holding frequent flyers of our world? Is it not because there is such a 'low probability' of a TB-infected African child coughing in the same air-conditioned corridors that our elites frequent?

A couple of years ago a senior editor of one of India's major newspapers, when asked by a women's rights activist to publish a story about high rates of malnutrition among girl children, is reported to have refused and said, "The readers of our newspaper do not suffer from malnutrition". Sure, Mr Let Them Eat Cake, but are you and your readers not the cause of malnutrition in India? (Ahem, what I wanted to say was, "Will someone pass me that cutting edge of the French Revolution!") When one hears stories such as these, a question arises in the mind. This is just a nasty, nasty question that I just cannot get out of my head. Could it be that those who die unseen, unheard, untreated are themselves microbes in the worldview of our masters? Has the microbe become a metaphor for the unwashed, unwanted millions who do not fit into the corporate globalisation of our empire-builders?

Good riddance, they suppose, to those teeming, troublesome microbes – of so little value to the empire. Microbes, who cannot afford to buy and have nothing to sell.

And from this high point of moral clarity it is just a little leap away to identifying those other microbes that need to be dealt with. The bearded, turbaned, different, dissident, multi-tongued microbes. To be screened and searched at every airline check-point, discouraged, disinfected, disposed off like a dirty secret. Microbes, whose very existence is a form of biological warfare to some.

No, I really do want to bring this subject up, however depressing the subject is to me and to many of you reading this. It is important to see what our dear world is headed towards. A world in which there are perishable, pestilent microbes and there are those human beings moulded in the image of God.
Okay, okay, not all of us are microbes of course. Many of us are a slightly higher caste – tolerated, employed, paid, domesticated sheep and cattle. And there is also that special category – well-fed, trained dogs. God bless the creatures; I really have nothing against their species. (In fact, some of them are my best friends.) But I cannot help objecting to the worst of canine qualities that many of these four-legged ones in our midst display.

Whining and dining with the masters, biting and barking at the poor. I know all this is getting a bit too depressing and I do not like it one bit. I have been reading too much Orwell these days, and that too, on the front pages of daily newspapers. So how does one get out of this 'animal farm' we all seem to be trapped in? I say let us go back to our roots and our traditions – the great traditions of the ancient microbes.

Think of it, the microbes, the first form of life on planet earth. Microbes – mating, multiplying, mutating into higher, more virulent forms of cognitive, combative life. Weathering all storms, resisting all predators and surviving every sterile environment. Microbes evolving, exploring, exploding till every form of life finds its place under the sun.

I have got it figured now. What this globe really needs now is a Movement Of All Microbes and the Mother of All Movements. A million MOAMs to match the challenges ahead.

–(Satya Sagar;orginally under the title "SARS,War and the Farce", Zmag April 2003)

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Himal Southasian