KONGMedia-fanned hysteria is combining with nanny-state government
attitudes to disrupt international trade, tourism and social intercourse. Europe
in particular appears to take fright at the slightest new risk to life or limb,
regardless of statistical probabilities.
Living in East Asia through the SARS
outbreak and the post-Sept. 11 terrorism scares, one can see the reasons for a
rising sense of frustration, if not anger, at the exaggerated, selective and
irrational responses of the West to terrorist and disease threats.
As important as learning medical and
epidemiological facts about severe acute respiratory syndrome is the need to
avoid repetition of damaging and discriminatory global reactions to it. The same
applies to isolated instances of terrorism.
For those who live in Hong Kong, the
hyperbole of "killer bug" and "city of fear" images is obvious but still leads
to such mean responses as Ireland's ban on disabled athletes from SARS-affected
areas participating in the Special Olympics in Dublin. The risk to the Irish
population is no more than that to the athletes of being killed in a crash en
The World Health Organization has stated
that exclusion of people who have no SARS symptoms or have not been in touch
with SARS patients is unnecessary. Many quarantine guidelines are illogical and
based on ignorance of the nature of the virus. That might not matter had such
exaggerations not devastated tourism and consumption in countries such as South
Korea and Australia with no locally generated cases and most of Southeast Asia
with just a handful.
The WHO itself may be partly to blame. It
has done a good job in coordinating tracking of the disease and promoting
cooperation between governments and scientific communities. But its advisories
against visiting SARS-affected countries smack of arrogance. Such advisories are
unique to the SARS event.
Why that should be is unclear but has
made Asian countries quietly mutter about an institution based in
cleaner-than-thou Switzerland and seen as staffed mostly by Westerners. It is
not as though there are not many countries with more prevalent or dangerous
infectious diseases. North America has West Nile virus, Burkina Faso a
meningococcal disease that has killed more than 1,000 this year. SARS may be new
but meanwhile old diseases such as tuberculosis are again bigger problems
because of drug resistance.
In the early days, a high level of
concern was warranted because so little was known about the virus and how it
spread. Now a lot is known. The reality of SARS is that even in Hong Kong, with
by far the highest level of incidence, only one in 4,000 has caught it. It does
not spread through casual contact. Rates of infection and mortality are heavily
skewed toward the elderly, as with other kinds of atypical pneumonia, which even
in Hong Kong are still more common than SARS.
But SARS is not alone. The
out-of-proportion reactions in the West to terrorism fears is now well
established. Yes there will be occasional strikes, as there were by the IRA, ETA
and others - and as there were by radical groups in the 1960s and '70s and
one-of-a-kind incidents like the Oklahoma City bombing. But there is nothing to
suggest a rise in terrorism outside long-known trouble spots. Indeed, total
terrorist incidents have been falling.
But the blanket warnings issued by
Western governments against travel to places where terrorism is no more likely
than at home is highly damaging and seen as unfair and discriminatory. Likewise
are advisories issued to leave India or South Korea on grounds of imminent war.
How many visitors to the United States each year are random victims of random
homicide? Surely it should be on a blacklist. And Turkey? A long record of
earthquake deaths must surely rule it out as a tourist destination. Australia?
All those crocodile victims.
Perhaps one should not be surprised by
knee-jerk overreactions by countries that bother little about huge death tolls
on the roads or from avoidable chronic diseases, create Frankenstein monsters
out of genetically modified plants or react to the occasional train crash by
cutting services and so pushing travelers onto the far more dangerous roads.
Sometimes these societies seem afraid of their own shadows.
The aim of terror is to generate fear and
overreaction. It has been succeeding. So too has the SARS virus. Governments
must learn to face fears with facts and perspective. All risks are relative.