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SARS is the health of the state

Last night I watched a Channel 4 TV documentary about SARS.

Meanwhile, according to the Radio Times, over on Channel 5 they were showing the movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. Sometimes Britain’s broadcasters cancel things at the last minute if they feel that the bounds of bad taste are being crossed, so I made a point of checking if Outbreak was actually being shown. It was.

The way that SARS is, we were told, being contained, is that the various people who took the lead in spreading it are being restrospectively tracked in minute and individual detail, so that all their contacts can in turn be tracked down and placed in quarantine. The movements of the “super-spreader” Professor Lee, who took the contagion from South China to Hong Kong, were recounted as if doing the research for the disaster movie script that all this will surely yield in due course. The scene where the already coughing Professor shares a lift with a young businessman called something like Johnny Chang will undoubtedly be in this movie, with very scary music.
Cut to Toronto, whence one lady had travelled from (I think they said) Hong Kong. With luck, the deaths outside of China will be in the hundreds rather than the thousands, and the contagion will be contained.

In China it is already clear that they won’t be nearly so lucky, and the blogosphere has for several days been making much of the threat that the rapid spread of SARS in China poses to the Chinese economy, and by extension to the very survival of the present political system in China. Briefly, during the crucial early days and weeks of the disease, they covered it up rather than faced the problem. They opted for denial rather than facing up to the disaster and trying to contain it. The phrase “mandate of heaven” (loss of) is now doing the rounds. Those tyrannies which are so tyrannical that their basic method for dealing with problems is to beat the private parts off anyone who dares to publicise problems will not do so well out of SARS. The case for adding the tyrannical intrusions of a competitive media industry to the old fashioned tyranny of governments like the present government of China, so that, in among all the hoo-hah about the ex-private lives of Soap stars, things like SARS can be flagged up a month sooner than the government would like, will be hard to argue against.

But meanwhile, throughout the West, you can bet that the SARS story will be used as an excuse for all manner of tabs being kept on the honest citizenry. From the government’s point of view, the beauty of contagious disease is that, unlike crime, the law-abiding majority spreads it, not just criminals (although criminals too of course), and so stopping contagious disease is a matter of keeping tabs on the herd of honest citizenry. Ergo, compulsory “smart” ID cards for everyone. Ergo laws that say you can’t take so much as a piss in a public toilet without getting a personalised receipt and leaving a personalised electronic record. We are only hours away from the Euro-speeches and Euro-pronouncements that say all this, and for all I know they have already begun. (See this interesting although off-message comment number one here, about and linking to this. And mark, to answer your question, thanks for the article, which I hadn’t seen, but the story has been tracked by such groups as Privacy International and the Libertarian Alliance for years now, not that it will make much difference in the end.)

Contagious diseases are the perfect excuse for the state to tyrannise over the individual. After all, if someone is carrying pestilence towards the healthy majority, the healthy majority really is entitled to stop such a person, by force if necessary.

Also, contagious diseases are emergencies, and governments do love emergencies. It makes them feel important. During contagions, they are important.

What SARS is achieving is our old friend “convergence”. The super-tyrannies will be embarrassed into being somewhat less tyrannical, at any rate in their media-suppressing aspects, but the milder tyranny of the democracies will get less mild. Maybe Francis Fukuyama should have stuck with the “end of history” for a bit longer.

Also, when that SARS movie hits the cinemas, something tells me that the World Health Organisation is going to come out of all this very well. Here’s what Channel 4 says about them:

If it weren’t for the coordinating activities of WHO, it’s quite likely that we in the UK still wouldn’t know about SARS. Certainly, the viral agent wouldn’t have been identified and characterised so quickly and infection controls would not have been put in place so rapidly around the world. If and when SARS is contained all credit should be given to WHO and their collaborating teams of scientists. It is thanks to WHO that we can breath a little more easily in the face of other more serious, more infectious agents that are bound to crop up in the future.

Big Brother is watching over us.

UPDATE: I should have included this link.

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9 comments to SARS is the health of the state

  • mad dog barker

    I am not sure if being able to minutely track a population’s movements is a good thing or a bad thing. It would seem SARS has some anti-libertarian tendancies!

    I notice in a effort to curb the desease, the Chinese administration was falling back (on its arse as well as…) on some of its more draconian Communist tendancies.

    Machiavellian bio-terrorism occurs on many levels, glasshoppa!

  • “Big Brother is watching over us.”

    A new collective blog is organizing to watch over Big Brother. Check it out:

    The Watchtower

  • I don’t think channel 5 have ever been concerned with good taste.

    As for SARS, the point is that in its present form, it isn’t the big one. It is much less deadly than a really nasty flu virus could be, and it isn’t all that contagious. (It seems to require liquid dropules from a sneeze, or similar). A really nasty virus would be much more deadly and more contagious. This virus could mutate into such a thing, but if it underwent one such mutation it would be a global castrophe but still not the big one. Both mutations are unlikely, I think.

    If SARS helps us prepare for the big one when and if it comes, this could even be a good thing. (We last got the big one in 1918, of course).

    I think also that China is certain to hit the fundamental contradictions that come from having a (fairly) free economy, and the freedom of information and communications technologies that are necessary to have such a thing function, and a repressive regime based upon contradictions and lies at the same time at some point. If SARS brings it about, good. (South Korea and Taiwan had to face similar contradictions in the 1990s, and in both cases the consequences were good).

  • mark

    In a libertarian world, how would these types of public health issues be handled? What sanctions would there be to ensure the truthfulness of a community in the tourist industry? I keep thinking of the mayor in the movie “Jaws.” Did he act in a manner consistant with libertarian ideals?

  • Seems to me that the Chinese government adopted the libertarain approach to start with – they did nothing to create a panic but instead let people make up their own mind.

    It was the “international media commizars” who forced everyone to take action – resulting in riots in china, world wide panic and the loss of a few basis points of world growth. For what?

    I’m with China’s plan A on this one – its no big deal so no need to give oxygne to the hysterics.

  • Maybe I should start capitalising to avoid confusion with other marks. For our name is Legion.

    But he has a point. Philosophers frequently use the example of crowd panic as an argument against free speech (the freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre for example, causing death as people push for the exits) and as an argument against liberty at all (the freedom to push for the exits in that theatre, instead of obeying the ushers or whoever).

    It’s a difficult debate. Many Chinese may die because the communist authorities tried to control information about SARS. But as with the mediaeval plague, though, letting people freely flee can spread it quicker.

    Any clear ideas either way?

  • Yet Another Mark

    Can Mr. Micklethwait point to any specific government actions that support his thesis? He writes:

    “But meanwhile, throughout the West, you can bet that the SARS story will be used as an excuse for all manner of tabs being kept on the honest citizenry. … Ergo, compulsory “smart” ID cards for everyone. Ergo laws that say you can’t take so much as a piss in a public toilet without getting a personalised receipt and leaving a personalised electronic record. We are only hours away from the Euro-speeches and Euro-pronouncements that say all this, and for all I know they have already begun.”

    IOW, it hasn’t happened, as far as he knows, but “you can bet” that it will hit the news any minute now, because his theory about how governments are always trying to screw everyone all the time predicts it. It’s a historical inevitability, I guess.

    The quarantine plan that he criticizes consists of identifying individual people who are likely to have been exposed and placing them under observation. It’s hard to imagine a more carefully targeted and less invasive quarantine.

    What would he have governments do about SARS? Is there any action they could take that he wouldn’t perceive as a power grab? If not, then I must conclude that offending Brian Micklethwait is part of the price we pay to keep breathing.

  • Greyford Galaxie

    Giles, the Chinese government was NOT libertarian in any way, shape or form in how they initially handled the disease. The first response of authorities was not to ignore SARS, but to actively and purposely *suppress* any information about it. The country’s state-controlled media were explicitly banned from reporting on it because of some major political meetings that were taking place in November and March — when SARS first emerged and when it became a serious cause of concern in places like Hong Kong and Singapore.

    Beijing is in the grip of a mild panic now, largely because there was a five-month information vacuum that was suddenly lifted when Beijing realized it could not keep a lid on this thing forever. While people in Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada have been able to monitor the gradual spread of the disease over a period of months, suddenly Chinese were assaulted with relatively large numbers that were 10 times what they had previously known. Many people took the numbers at face value and did not realize they represented total infections over several months.

    Since the government started coming clean(er) about 10 days ago, the media have been unleashed to do in-depth reporting on SARS. The nightly news broadcast is 80 percent SARS and the papers are doing several pages of dedicated SARS coverage, so it is somewhat feeding the sense of panic. However, while I think fears are overblown, for reasons Michael Jennings stated above, I don’t mind a little mild panic that keeps people at home, on alert, and taking lots of precautions. Hopefully the extreme measures now be taken by people will help get SARS under control, at least in Beijing. The real test will come when this thing breaks out big-time in the countryside, which is totally unprepared to deal with even a low-level epidemic like this one.

    But I have the feeling there won’t be anything even remotely libertarian about the response…

  • Julian Morrison

    How would this stuff be handled in a libertarian world? Simple enough: each private property line is a “border” which may be “closed” to an individual or to everybody. And in a libertarian society, the roads, rails, airports would be privately owned.