Why big cities need to worry about epidemics (and other security threats)
April 8, 2007, 4:32 pm
Filed under: australia, england, environment, events, science, security, travel

I’m flying again this month. A lot. My carbon footprint will go from a size 5 cycling around Cambridge to a size 12 flying between three continents (plus several domestic legs in Australia).

I’m not a fan of flying anymore. No inflight entertainment system or free beverages will cajole me. But I’m Australian, I live in the UK, taking three weeks off work is a stretch – how else am I supposed to visit home? I wish someone would hurry up and invent a teleporter. I don’t think having my atoms torn apart then reassembled would be that much worse than how I feel after a long distance flight, and it would save time.

My main problem is disease. Nearly every time I take an international flight I get a respiratory infection. There are many obvious reasons for this, from the horrible recirculated cabin air to the variety of people from all over breathing into this air. Yuck. That combined with jet lag is a recipe for sickness. I cope with it better than I used to due to wonderful ‘frequent flyer’ nasal sprays – but who wants the person sitting uncomfortably close to you on a plane snorting tea tree oil? It’s gross. I don’t want to inflict that on fellow passengers.

But I will, because now I have another reason to be apprehensive. I was reading in last week’s New Scientist about XDR-TB, an extremely drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis creeping around the world. In South Africa it’s almost certainly fatal. There’s a strain in Italy impervious to all known medicines. A few cases have now been reported in London. It’s an airborne disease, and New Scientist says “it is possible that simply sharing a long-haul flight may be enough” to catch it.

Governments should be putting as much money into avoiding biological threats as they are terrorism. I’m all for added security measures to prevent terrorism (well, most of them), but disease kills a lot more people! And it’s more preventable! Why haven’t we eliminated TB, let alone polio? It’s disgraceful.

In this century I think all weapons development should be stopped and money should be put into environmental security measures. What are we going to do, nuke the country that incubates the next pandemic? I don’t think so. That said, people with XDR-TB are being forcibly quarantined to prevent it spreading. At least with terrorism you have to do something bad to get detained (once again, mostly). If you innocently catch a disease while travelling you can get locked up indefinitely, without the political outrage associated with being in the position of David Hicks. Plus you have to deal with an agonising illness eating away at your lungs. It’s brutally unfair for victims.

These kind of worries are why it’s nice to live in places like Adelaide, Calgary or Cambridge, rather than Sydney, Toronto or London. Yes, Sydney’s been unscathed so far. Australia is a pretty remote island after all. Toronto or London are both tarred in my eyes due to security risks.

A few years ago I was due to move to Toronto, I had a partial scholarship to go to Ryerson University to pursue my broadcast journalism studies. Then SARS happened. I was meant to leave around the height of the epidemic, I decided to put off my exchange for another semester, to be on the safe side. There were other factors involved, but that was a big one. I got a full scholarship to Calgary the following semester, and I went having never heard of the city before – but it was fantastic, fuelled my love of snow sports and interest in development issues, so I’ve never looked back.

In 2005 I went to a conference in Scotland, flying via London. This was roughly two weeks after the first London bombings… I never considered cancelling my trip (would I have if London had been riddled with disease instead?) as lightning doesn’t strike twice, as the saying goes. I was wrong, kind of – I flew in just after the disrupted bomb attacks in which an innocent Brazilian guy was killed by police. The city’s public transport was shut down so I got a bus to Cambridge, deciding I shouldn’t tempt fate and hang around the capital.

It never occurred to me I’d be living in Cambridge a couple of years later – but here I am. Now London still spooks me a bit. I go there every couple of weeks. Whenever there’s a major delay on the tube and people are crammed in without explanation, I wonder, has something happened again?

I know it’s not that likely though. I know it’s much more likely I’ll get sick with the amount I travel. The funny thing is I don’t worry about getting sick in places like Vietnam or Samoa so much – I take some precautions, use mosquito nets where possible. What worries me more are these potential pandemics in population centres. I wonder how many other people have avoided huge cities for the same reasons? I wonder how many other young professional couples with high earning potential are shunning international hubs in favour of regional capitals?


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