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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

in the shadow of plague

Disaster is by now familiar. We have all seen exploding cars and imploding buildings, battle scenes and massacres. But for most of us, this experience is secondhand, absorbed through the media of film and television, and often viewed as entertainment. The cable news networks make their money by dramatizing the awful for us. Watching the World Trade Centre crumble in 2001 evoked in many a strange but entirely predictable response: “It’s just like a movie.”

This over-familiarity with the imagery of disaster affects how nations, when faced with the threat of a crisis, respond. Leaders instinctively go into superhero mode, as though they were the stars of their own movie. The drama around the event, whether it be natural disaster, military conflict, or public health issue, is amplified. Fear leaps out of the shadows, and citizens are easily persuaded to surrender their civil rights. The language of politicians becomes even emptier than usual.

To observe the coverage of the recent swine flu scare was to watch all of this unfold. I was struck by how, in the United States, almost all the initial statements about the scare were made not by the President or the Secretary of Health, but by the Secretary of Homeland Security. The ominous pronouncements combined necessary diligence about public health with a vague sort of xenophobia. This, we were made to understand, was a Mexican flu. The threat was cast as an insidious thing that involved foreigners. You could have believed that fighting the flu was simply going to be a continuation of the war on terror.

Disease is often enough used as a pretext for xenophobia. In the media here, AIDS and the Ebola virus are taken to be African, and SARS and avian flu are thought of as Chinese. If we go all the way back to 1918, to the biggest of the twentieth-century’s flu pandemics, we will discover that the earliest cases were in Austria and in Kansas. But, of course, it wasn’t called the “Kansan flu.” It was called the “Spanish flu.” This was for no other reason than the fact that, although every country in Europe was infected, only Spain did not censor the true facts about the death tolls.

The 1918 flu was both highly communicable and seriously pathogenic. Probably 20 per cent of the world’s population caught it between 1918 and 1919, and of that number, between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent died. The numbers are staggering: some 50 million or more people lost their lives. It is in the record books as the biggest medical disaster of all time.

The flu of 1918, and milder but nevertheless devastating recurrences in 1957 and 1964, are the historical background to the current flu worries. The 1918 flu, SARS, avian flu, and the current swine flu are all caused by influenza viruses and related to one another by a complex network of avian, porcine and human infection patterns. The big problem is that although the influenza virus only has eight genes, and although the proteins those genes code for have been studied in detail for decades, the virus itself is highly susceptible to mutation. It is a tricky creature, always one step ahead of scientists.

So, the threat of this one, a variant of the virus scientifically known as “novel H1N1,” is real. However, much of the approach to the problem by governments in these past weeks has been theatrical as well as hysterical. This swine flu has behaved rather similarly to the seasonal flu that infects thousands every year. I have therefore found myself curious not only about the disease, but also about what the threat of disaster, does to societies.

For instance, the U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden, went on record to say that he wouldn’t advise anyone to go on a plane, a subway or any “enclosed spaces.” His office quickly apologised for spreading misinformation. The Chinese government, meanwhile, decided to confine hundreds of Mexicans in a Hong Kong hotel, because one person appeared to be sick. This set off a diplomatic firestorm. And the Nigerian Health Minister, Babatunde Oshotimehin, added his own, cautioning Nigerians against travelling to the United States and Mexico. Nigerians should not go to America? Was he joking?

These kinds of reactions are mirrored well in the literature of disaster. For public officials, it seems, there is no cure for the habit of only doing too much or doing too little. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, is about a pandemic in the Algerian town of Oran. The spread of the disease is at first disbelieved by all but a few, but shortly afterwards, it becomes the cause of mass hysteria. Only a handful of people, notably Dr. Rieux and Dr. Castel, serve the greater good. Everyone else is unhinged by fear. Some even profit from it, such as Father Paneloux who uses the plague to promote his own profile within the town, and Cottard who becomes rich by smuggling goods in and out of the barricaded town.

What if, I asked myself, this swine flu really became widespread and deadly? Quite apart from our medical readiness, are our societies emotionally prepared for real disaster? I turned to a much older novel as I mused on these questions: Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the 1665 plague that devastated the city of London. The unnamed narrator of the story decides to remain in the city as the disease rages, and the story he tells is a grim one: burials, bodies piled on carts, the appointment of watchmen and nurses, and increasingly draconian rulings by magistrates. Similar to the people of Oran in Camus’ book, the Londoners of A Journal of the Plague Year become more superstitious, seeking out quacks instead of authentic doctors. Many go mad from fear and desperation, undone by their terror at being undone. The sleep of reason, as it is said, produces monsters.

And this, I suppose, is what we really should expect: the mere threat of suffering pushes people towards irrational beliefs. Though the North American expression of this latest flu seems now to be under control, it isn’t clear that all the danger is past. Leaving aside CNN’s gleeful reporting, the public urgently needs to be educated about the flu. Yes, it is highly communicable. No, it isn’t usually fatal. No, there isn’t a vaccine for this particular mutation yet. Yes, there probably will be one soon. If the flu does come back in about a year, as some say it might, we will (medically speaking) be readier for it by then.

I think there’s something to learn about what life under a pandemic might be like from books about the AIDS crisis (Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country are two powerful examples that come to mind). Officials, we will realise, are generally self-serving liars; irrationally fearful people make poor, and sometimes hateful, choices; and some of the deepest and noblest instincts of human emerge from the shadow of plague.

Should we ever have to face a deadly flu pandemic again (and sooner and later we will) it would be a shame if it became an occasion for hating foreigners or for needless suffering. Instead of playing superhero or looking for excuses to impose martial law-the equivalent of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre-governments need to help their citizens refrain from panic.

For now, though, things are stable. The experts say we should feel free to eat bacon, ride the subway, and take planes. And I’ll add to that: should you be in possession of a visa and plane ticket, don’t mind the Health Minister. Carry your load and come to America. I can absolutely guarantee that once you get here, you’ll be so busy dealing with unemployment, racism, bills, violence and flavourless chicken, that swine flu will be the least of your worries.

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