Panic and Pandemic

Signs of hysteria over swine flu that are emerging in Asia will do nothing to stop the spread of the virus and could do serious damage to economies already reeling from the slowdown in world trade.

East Asia, with its heavy reliance on trade and tourism, is particularly vulnerable to the spread of panicky reactions to the virus. It should be urging a cool-headed response but is actually in the van of overreaction.

China is the most extreme case, at least at the local level where authoritarian officialdom is in its element imposing controls and dispatching innocent travelers into quarantine on the flimsiest of pre-texts. Even those who have simply transited a Mexican airport are being sent to quarantine. Having been accused of cover-ups in the past, China is now going overboard with controls.

In Hong Kong a government ever eager to find diversions from its own unpopularity and a looming June 4 anniversary is demanding other countries, notably the US, with cases of the flu check all departing passengers. This is from a territory which was the chief focus of SARS and an early location of avian flu. Yet even during SARS, a much more dangerous virus than swine flu has proved, Hong Kong never attempted to check those leaving and its citizens were never subject to random official restrictions when overseas.

Meanwhile the fear of being put in quarantine for simply having been on the same plane or bus as someone who developed the flu is beginning to be further disincentive to travel. Likewise, the body temperature tests at airports are simply a menace. Anyone with any type of fever is liable to be detained for as long as it takes to determine whether it is the swine flu. Meanwhile, those carrying the virus but as yet not suffering symptoms move freely.

Airport warnings demand travelers report sneezes, shivers, coughs, aches and fevers. Naturally, including those who are suffering from one or more of these, ignore for the very good reason that there is probably no more than a 100,000 to one chance that their particular complaint has anything to do with swine flu.

Although the new flu obviously deserves careful watching and analysis to create vaccines and treatments, its specific danger to global public health appears to have been greatly exaggerated. It has for example been noted that "ordinary" seasonal flu was the cause of some 36,000 deaths in the US though the official death certificate in most cases stated pneumonia, the secondary infection most closely associated with flu.

Such are governments' nervousness about being accused of not doing enough they are taking measures which have scant scientific justification and without any regards to cost benefit analysis or acceptance that freedom to travel necessarily involves communities taking some risks.

The quarantine obsession also makes arrogant assumptions about governments' ability to prevent pandemics if conditions are ripe for the global spread of a particular virus. This may be the case with swine flu but there is no evidence as yet that it is any worse than pre-exiting flu viruses. Of course it may mutate but humans have no control over that anyway.

Current events remind this writer of a similar panics and responses nearly two centuries ago. Then outbreaks of the plague around the Mediterranean resulted in draconian quarantine measures with cities being cut off and families shutting themselves off from all contact with the world outside.

Most of this was nonsense, as one my own ancestors noted. In a paper to the British Association of Science in 1838 John Bowring, who had studied the issue in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere, was scathing in his comments on plague quarantines. They were based on theories which took no account of facts of the actual incidence or timing of plague outbreaks or what they said about the transmission system. The facts showed that quarantines had no impact on its spread or on mortality rates.

They were not only scientifically dubious but led to immense economic losses caused abuse of power by officials, were a source of widespread corruption and, even if desirable, were ineffective because of the ingenuity of those who needed to trade and travel in getting around them.

He wrote: "Much of the evidence floating around in the public mind as to the contagiousness of the plague was of a very untrustworthy character – that it emanated for the most part from boards of health or quarantine establishments having a pecuniary interest in the subject".