Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Pandemics Aplenty

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  May 3 / 09

Zack Gross

As the old maxim goes, we live on a shrinking planet, in a global village.  What happens in one region affects another, whether it is conflict, famine or an environmental disaster. 

Recent wars in Central, East and the Horn of Africa have resulted not only in terrible hardship for people in those regions, but also out-migrations of refugees all around the world.  We see them in Brandon and Winnipeg. We welcome them but we know that something bad brought them to our country.

Today, the global village has the flu.  People getting sick and dying in Mexico means illness and death in Europe and North America.  This is not the first serious epidemic to occur, but the existence of airplane travel and the popularity of tourism mean that disease can move easily around the world.  Nor is the current strain of flu the only pandemic.  We must remember that the world lives (and dies) with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, to name a few diseases that are pandemic.

Every year, two million people die of TB and one million of malaria.  Most people affected are African children.  Twenty million people have died of AIDS over the last thirty years – the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in world history – and currently some forty-two million live with the virus.  These diseases not only sicken and kill people, but they hold back development and perpetuate poverty by reducing human capital and productivity.  Interestingly, Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, has cited global pandemic as the greatest global strategic threat, ahead of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Fueling the pandemic threat are the “poor neighbourhoods” in our global village – the “developing” countries that don’t have the health care systems to deal with disease, and the environmental destruction we have wrought on our planet – weather changes, and extreme air, water and land pollution, and our failure to control infection related to food production.  We may forget about the non-flu pandemics, because they don’t seem to directly affect us.  For instance, the hugely generous response to the Boxing Day 2004 South Asian Tsunami happened, in part, because many Westerners have vacationed in Indonesia and Thailand.  We could relate, therefore, to that disaster.  When Pakistan faced a major earthquake months later, the response was more muted.

The “known” world has been swept by countless pandemics.  The flu in 1918 and 1919 killed close to 100 million people in a world of just over a billion.  Ironically, many people returned alive from the terrible battles of World War I in Europe at that time only to die right away of the flu at home in North America. 

Plague ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages and into the 17th Century, killing whole villages when an infected person or even infected goods were brought into contact with inhabitants.  Some major episodes of plague killed as many as half of the population in Europe.

We live a global lifestyle.  We travel, as members of the “rich world”, wherever we please.  We eat foods grown in tropical climes, buy clothes produced around the planet, and attend events with representatives of every continent.  We celebrate our globalization! 

There is a down side to our lifestyle – two of them, in fact.  One is that our globetrotting travel, eating and shopping habits haven’t brought wealth to our hosts and their countries’ producers.  In fact, current trade regulations and the nature of conventional tourism consign “third world” people to on-going second-class citizenship in our world.

The other down side is that by not seriously investing our wealth and expertise in the betterment of our global village’s poorer neighbourhoods, we’ve left ourselves open to pandemics and other threats. 

Societies who don’t confront poverty – and keep their wealth to themselves – beget crime, illiteracy, environmental decay and a host of problems that will bring us all down.  It is impressive the efforts that our governments are going to in containing the current threat.  This needs to be constant and coupled with a broader range of programs that bring health, good governance and dignity to all parts of our planet.

In the Middle Ages, many people thought that the plague was a punishment from God.  While God may not be punishing us, we may be punishing ourselves by our inaction.  Being able to avoid pandemics and being prepared to confront them - before they happen - means changing the way we view our planet. 

Our Global Village is becoming our Global Yard.  We need to tend to our home and its people in a concerted way.  Our selfishness will otherwise lead to catastrophe.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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