Wars And The Farce
April 26, 2003
The depression hits me on
a warm and humid Bangkok evening. I am just through with dinner in the
city's crowded Sukhumvit business district, my head full of the War
on Iraq and I spot these people- with masks on their faces.
A couple of weeks ago anybody
with a cloth covering his face in this city would have been branded
a `jihadi' a possible Arab/Muslim/dark skinned/dark intentioned `terrorist'.
The city has been on alert well before the war on Iraq started to prevent
`Arab looking' people from doing bad things- for eg., looking Arab.
Just around the time of the
Anglo-American attack on Iraq, if there were to be an `Arab' behind
a mask in Bangkok - the entire city would have been evacuated.
Apparently, not anymore.
Respectable people wear masks now in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia,
Hong Kong. In fact mandatory they say to save yourself from SARS- the
flu-like virus that has much of south-east Asia in deep panic. Tourists
are canceling their trips in droves, schools are closing down, economies
plunging, governments in crisis and the Chinese- oh those `super-contaminating
Chinese'- are being spurned everywhere.
Suddenly, an irrational panic
grips me. God- there is no escape. If the Apostles of Armageddon running
the White House do not get you some mysterious malevolent microbes will.
For a fleeting moment, a deep frozen moment, I lose hope. We are finished.
They will get us one way or the other.
This is what the new/OLD
colonial world order is going to be all about- complete helplessness
for us common citizens. Caught between SARS and THEIR Wars the only
safe place is soon going to be- you guessed right- on planet Mars.
Yes, the people I saw wearing
those masks have a right to protect themselves. I will not mock them
in any way. To paraphrase Voltaire I do not believe these masks medically
help them in any way but I will defend to death their right to wear
them. And then there are so many of THEM out there who deserve to have
a mask fixed on their faces anyway (so we won't have to `read their
Yes, there are these microbes
and many of them are dangerous. Yes, people have died and still continue
to do so. And it is indeed true we really do not know which way this
pandemic is going to turn out. There are constant references to the
great Influenza outbreak after World War One which killed an estimated
20 to 40 million people. Is SARS going to be that big ?
I am no kin to any Indian
sage and I cannot predict such things. But I am betting neither can
the `medical experts' or the `media' give us a real idea of what is
going to happen. At this stage, given the sparse information on hand
about SARS, it is all idle speculation- an activity that SOME people
usually make lots of money out of.
Even assuming the deeply
depressing thought that much of humanity is going to be wiped out by
SARS over the next year (that is what the media is making it sound like)
let us take a step back from this approaching abyss, take a deep breath
(go ahead, do it while it is still safe) and reflect on a few questions
about other aspects of this PANDEMONIUM of a pandemic.
First the CONTEXT: Why are
we so full of fear only of THESE microbes and not those dozen other
ways in which people die completely avoidable deaths ?
To anyone who is not already
aware of these facts let me spell them out:
- 250,000 to 500,000 people
die every year around the world due to ordinary influenza, the common
`garden variety' flu. In the United States alone, with a vaccine and
medical care available, flu kills 36,000 people die every year.
- Anywhere between 1 to 2.7
million die every year due to Malaria- a vast majority of them in Africa,
- Tuberculosis kills 2 million
people every year and 98 per cent of these in developing countries
- HIV/AIDS claimed 3 million
lives in 2002, including an estimated 610,000 children.
- Traffic accidents kill
300,000 people every year in Asia alone.
- The Anglo-American invasion
of Iraq killed at least 10 to 15,000 Iraqi soldiers and over 2,300 Iraqi
civilians in just the initial two weeks and maybe several hundred British
and American troops.
And I am not even counting
those millions who die of poverty and malnutrition around the globe
annually. Every year the Indian media attributes hundreds of deaths
to the `cold wave', `the heat wave', `too much rain' and `too little
rain'. The fact is these deaths have nothing to do with the weather-
in my country there people die every hour, wantonly, in PERFECTLY good
weather. We all know WHY.
I would say this. If we choose
to cover our faces let it be in anger and in shame- not just due to
some microbes alone.
The RECORD so far: Here is
the latest status of the number of SARS cases worldwide and deaths so
far since 1 November 2002 when the disease is supposed to have broken
out in southern China. In almost six months since the outbreak a total
of 4439 cases of SARS and `suspected' SARS have been recorded in 26
countries and 263 people have died. The mortality rate due to SARS is
estimated between 3 to 4 percent- just above that of normal influenza-but
even this is not confirmed because the total number of real SARS cases
is not yet known. Nor is its exact method of transmission clearly understood-
which is why wearing masks may not be a useful precaution at all.
The MEDICAL ESTABLISHMENT:
The alarm bells about SARS started ringing only when the WHO issued
a global alert in mid-March . A war of words broke out soon between
the WHO and the Chinese health authorities- the latter being accused
of `hiding information' about SARS in its first few months. The Chinese
said something back, which nobody understood (they are never going to
be a `superpower' this way).
One of the big critiques
of bodies like the WHO from health activists has been the way they have
adopted a purely `vertical' approach to global health problems at the
cost of a sustained, holistic and long-term approach. So whenever there
is an outbreak or more usually an `outcry' about a particular disease
WHO and other global health officials organize a `posse', mobilize some
resources, and ride into the wilderness ready to `lasso' the villain.
Once the `critter' is temporarily caught or suppressed the issue is
then mostly forgotten.
There is no attempt to even
address underlying causes of new virus and diseases emerging for eg.,
due to super-intensive techniques of animal husbandry, recycling of
animal offals in animal feed, the use of a variety of artificial hormones
and growth-enhancers and of course from biological warfare experiments.
Nor is there any attempt to mitigate the conditions, such as overcrowding,
poverty and lack of housing infrastructure, under which infectious diseases
such as SARS spread so rapidly. The WHO has failed to push policies
that tackle other basic social and economic determinants of public health
also - such as conflict, environmental pollution and privatization of
The MEDIA: Has anybody really
asked how much of the SARS scare is due to the media's penchant for
simplistic, alarmist reporting ? One of the first `big' SARS cases to
make the headlines was that of Johnny Cheng, a Chinese-American businessman
who died at a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam after flying in from Hong Kong.
Just a month ago Hanoi was one of the `epicentres' of the SARS pandemic
going by media reports. No more. The country seems to have slipped down
the hit list of `no go' places with just 63 reported SARS cases and
How did this `super-contagious',
`killer' disease get contained in a crowded country like Vietnam with
a very average public health system ? Nobody in the media is following
the Vietnam story anymore because that is not on the map of the usual
globe-trotting elites. Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto are on that
MAP and hence the panic about viruses traveling on the business class
seat next to THEM. (If nothing else, maybe there is a great `success
story' out there in Vietnam, with details of how a poor, third world
country has successfully contained this deadly new infectious disease.)
And what happened to the
media follow up to the various other health scares we have had in the
past decade all around the globe ? Bubonic plague in India, Ebola in
Africa, the Mad Cow Disease in the UK ( I won't take a dig at Tony B
on this one) ? And why was there virtually no coverage in the `international
media' of the influenza outbreak in Madagascar in mid-2002, where more
than 27 000 cases were reported within three months and 800 deaths occurred
despite rapid intervention ?
There is an apocryphal story
going around this part of the world which shows how much of a media
`thing' this SARS scare probably is. The question asked is why is this
new form of flu being called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome ?
`Severe' and `Acute'- two synonymous terms together - WHY ? Apparently-
the term `Severe' was added (only in early March this year) to avoid
an awkward acronym resulting from what was originally dubbed the Acute
Respiratory Syndrome ? What's the secret here- cover your face and save
your --- ?
That story is most probably
a bad joke-but let me tell you- I think so is the way the entire SARS
scare is being reported and played out.
I AM NOT SAYING that the
deaths due to SARS are not a real, serious tragedy or that it could
not turn into a dangerous pandemic. Far from it. There is no moral mathematics
involved here, please. Every human life is precious- Iraqi or American,
Chinese or Singaporean. A very unique, irreplaceable Universe of its
own- disappears forever with each physical death. All I am pleading
for is some more PERSPECTIVE.
WHY are those dying of malaria,
tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and poverty in most developing countries every
day not making the headlines ? Is it not because those who die unseen,
unheard, untreated are not in the same league as the Gold Card holding
frequent flyers of our world ? Is it not because there is such a `low
probability' of a TB infected African child coughing in the same air-conditioned
corridors as our elites frequent ?
A couple of years ago a senior
editor of one of India's major newspapers, when asked by a women's rights
activist to publish a story about high rates of malnutrition among girl
children, is reported to have refused and said ` The readers of our
newspaper do not suffer from malnutrition'. Sure, Mr Let Them Eat Cake-
but aren't YOU and YOUR readers who are the CAUSE of malnutrition in
India. ( Ahem, what I wanted to say was -' Will someone pass me that
cutting edge of the French Revolution !')
When one hears stories such
as these a question arises in my mind. This is just a nasty, nasty question
that I just can't get out of my head. COULD IT BE that those who die
unseen, unheard, untreated are themselves MICROBES in the worldview
of our Masters ? Has the microbe become a metaphor for the unwashed,
unwanted millions who don't fit into the corporate globalisation of
our Empire builders ?
Good riddance, THEY suppose,
of those teeming, troublesome microbes- of so little value to the Empire.
Microbes, who cannot afford to BUY and have nothing to SELL.
And from this high point
of MORAL CLARITY it is just a little leap away to identifying those
other microbes that need to be dealt with. The bearded, turbaned, different,
DISSIDENT, multi-tongued microbes. To be screened and searched at every
airline check-point, discouraged, disinfected, disposed off like a dirty
secret. Microbes, whose very EXISTENCE, is a form of biological warfare
No, I really want to bring
this subject up. However depressing the subject is to me and many of
you reading this. It is important to see where our dear world is headed
towards. A world in which there are perishable, pestilent MICROBES and
there are those HUMAN BEINGS- moulded in the image of GOD.
OK, OK not all of us are
microbes of course. Many of us are a slightly higher caste- tolerated,
employed, paid, domesticated, sheep, cattle. And there is also that
special category - well-fed, trained dogs. God bless the creatures-
I really have nothing against their species. ( In fact, some of them
are my best friends) But I can't help objecting to the worst of canine
qualities that many of these four-legged ones in our midst display.
Whining and Dining with the Masters, Biting and Barking at the Poor.
I know all this is getting
a bit too depressing and I don't like it one bit. I have been reading
too much Orwell these days, and that too, on the front pages of daily
So how does one get out of
this Animal Farm we all seem to be trapped in ? I would say- let's go
back to our roots and our traditions- the great traditions of the ancient
Think of it- the microbes-
the first form of LIFE on Planet Earth. Microbes- mating, multiplying,
mutating into higher, more virulent forms of cognitive, COMBATIVE life.
Weathering all storms, RESISTING all predators and surviving every sterile
environment. Microbes evolving, exploring, EXPLODING till every form
of LIFE finds its place under the sun.
( I know now why Dubya does
not believe in the Theory of Evolution. Doesn't matter. The Theory doesn't
believe in him either.)
I have got it figured now.
What this globe really needs now is a Movement of All Microbes and the
Mother of All Movements. A million MOAMS to match all THEIR murderous,
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at