EISH! What a tough day for humanity!
With the World Health Organisation raising the global alert level to Phase 5 meaning that a worldwide pandemic of the killer H1N1 influenza virus is imminent, the world — that’s all of us — is now locked in combat with two enemies.
The existing one is the global financial crisis, which is proving to be a dogged, many-faceted and ruthless veteran. So far the war seems pretty evenly balanced with almost every advance we make being met by a fresh barrage of setbacks.
The new enemy that has hit the planet is called “swine flu”, or more accurately H1N1.
Without much of a credibility stretch these could as easily be translated into, say, an alien invasion which would demand a unified global response of the sort of romantic Hollywood scenario of Independence Day in which the nations of the world suddenly rally their forces and unite to fight one common threat to our species. If you don’t like the alien invasion scenario, use the equally apocalyptic one of Armageddon or the eminently better movie Deep Impact.
Today we got hit by aliens AND meteorites.
Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, called for “global solidarity” in dealing with the imminent global flu pandemic. “After all,” she said ominously, “it really is all of humanity that is under threat”.
Raising the threat level to Phase 5 means there is a “sustained human-to-human spread in at least two countries” — in the WHO’s Americas region — and that people who have not visited Mexico have fallen ill and passed on the virus. Yesterday the first fatality was recorded outside of Mexico, a toddler in Texas, one of the states bordering on Mexico. The virus is airborne and transmitted by humans, just like any regular flu. Although there are stockpiles of brand-name medicines available to fight this particular mutation of the flu virus, there is as yet no vaccine for H1N1. But the threat is severe enough for the normally hyper-secretive pharmaceutical giants to open their war chests to mass production and global cooperation.
Let’s make no mistake; both the ongoing financial crisis and the H1N1 flu are killers in every sense of the word. So far, the world seems to be treating both with the respect they deserve. While Chan and her colleagues were lavish in their praise of the responses by both the Mexican and US governments, and their “openness and transparency” about the disease, we remain just one short step from Phase 6 — a full frontal global pandemic.
I am much less enamoured of the way the media (especially in the US) has gone about reporting on the virus. They have seemed almost at pains to sensationalise it, going overboard in a frenzy of competitive superlatives. For example, calling it “swine flu” is really only a convenient piece of media nomenclature which has already had the most inconvenient result of panicking people into believing it is spread by pigs and can be contracted through eating pork (poor old pigs seem to always get a raw deal, don’t they?). Not only has this caused real damage to pig farmers and the communities that rely on them for their livelihoods — at a time when the world is also locked in an economic war — but people in Mexico have wanted to embark on mass pig slaughters eerily reminiscent of terrified villagers with torches and pitchforks marching on Dracula’s castle.
Watching CNN on Wednesday was actually quite embarrassing as seasoned reporters such as Heidi Collins, Rick Sanchez and Wolf Blitzer came across as almost determined to get government officials to directly attribute the virus to pigs. I kept saying: “You’re supposed to be educating the public! Not trying to prove yourselves right.” There, now I feel better.
Anyway, these world wars are proving that the global village is an indubitable reality. The implications of this are far more than most people, especially in SA, would believe. Quibbling between government and the Centre for Communicable Diseases about whether the two suspected cases in SA are “confirmed” or not, does not convey a message of solidarity or of a united front, irrespective of whether the quibbling is real or a media invention.
What is saddening, however, is the perennial head-in-the-sand reaction of too many of my countrymen and women. Numerous commentators on Thought Leader have shown a childish Nimby attitude, even asserting that the “rest of the world should just leave us alone to solve” our own problems.
This is asinine bellybutton-gazing, if not dangerously insular. Like it or not, what happens elsewhere — anywhere — will sooner or later hit us. And what we do, how we behave, who we trust, what messages we send beyond our borders and how we are judged or perceived will, as sure as a taxi crash, come home to roost. It happened with the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak and could easily happen with H1N1. I think our own international airports are well up to world standards. I don’t have the same faith in Nairobi, Harare, Gaborone, Maputo, Mbabane or Maseru.
All it takes is one sick person to get past the threadbare security at one of these backwoods terminals and catch a ride into, say, Polokwane or Barberton or Mmabatho before their symptoms show, and we have the makings of a national catastrophe. That’s why it is shameful ignorance to believe we live in some kind of impenetrable African bubble, as many of our commentators seem to imply.
I am as optimistic as ever that the financial crisis will eventually be beaten and that H1N1 influenza will be conquered. I’m equally hopeful that humanity will emerge wiser and better prepared from both crises.
We had better do so, because we still have many miles to travel in saving our planet from environmental disaster, not to mention pushing back the boundaries of ignorance, bigotry, prejudice, hatred, injustice and poverty. And even if the most powerful man in the world has more important things to attend than the inauguration of Jacob Zuma as president of SA, so be it. Maybe Zuma will be equally focussed on actually addressing the real problems after he’s been in Tuynhuis for 100 days.
Meantime, be careful out there. A village, even if global, can be a dangerous place.