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.