I've been thinking about the mBio report on MERS in camels, and the Saudi non-response to the story in particular and the outbreak in general. Bearing in mind that different cultures respond in different ways to health threats, as a recovering SF novelist let me offer a kind of thought experiment on how we North Americans would have reacted to a comparable threat:
In the spring of 2012, several healthcare workers in a Vermont hospital come down with an acute respiratory infection. Some die. The media swarm into the state, interview everyone in sight, and CDC takes blood and sputum samples from everyone including the media. Somehow nothing can be traced (CDC takes severe heat), but the disease is identified as "VeRS"--Vermont respiratory syndrome.
Later that year, VeRS turns up in several tourists and businesspersons returned from the northeastern US. Hospitals in Britain, France and Germany report cases. Some die, and at least one wardmate of a case in France contracts VeRS. The US media are in an uproar, as are the Europeans. New England tourism suffers.
By early 2013, VeRS cases are popping up not only in Vermont, but Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and upstate New York. CDC's website crashes under the onslaught of anxious Americans wanting to know what's going on. (I personally crash at about this point also, but miraculously stagger back to my keyboard to document the catastrophe.)
VeRS continues to wreak havoc through 2013, spreading throughout the US with occasional ominous cases in Canada. Our Conservative government tries to muzzle its scientists but fails under the media onslaught.
By summer, foreign tourism to the US evaporates. Even the Chinese prefer to take their chances with smog rather than VeRS, though millions of Americans loyally risk pandemic by showing up at Disneyland. A notable number of VeRS cases are contracted in hospitals; Rush Limbaugh blames Obamacare.
By early 2014, with Andrew Rambaut listing 206 VeRS cases, Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia reports that he has found the VeRS virus, going back to 1992, in samples from golden retrievers all over the US and Canada. One of North America's most beloved breeds is killing its owners.
If I have any sense at all, I shut off my Mac altogether and go for a nice walk in Wickenden Park with my Australian shepherd Lily. When I come home, I don't turn on my Mac again. I just pick up a nice book on a cheerful subject, like Margaret MacMillan's new history, The War That Ended Peace, about the buildup to World War I.
Because now the world's media are going into life-threatening convulsions about the newly renamed GRRS: Golden Retriever Respiratory Syndrome, the pandemic that will make us all pine for the happy days of the Spanish flu. Obama introduces RetrieverCare; it passes Congress and the Senate unanimously, and Limbaugh blesses the president as a great American.
Why have we been spared such convulsions? Because the House of Saud, including some of the greatest minds never to leave the 8th century, finds accurate, detailed MERS reporting to be inconvenient.
The rest of the world puts up with these people because they sell us their oil and buy our weapons and fashions. If they find MERS inconvenient to report, then they will report as little as they can get away with. Our health agencies, national and international, bite their lips and report equally little. With Saudi Arabia's media listed at #163 in press freedom out of all the countries in the world, no intrepid Saudi Edward Snowden is going to blow the whistle.
In a Columbia course in Oriental Humanities, I read translations of pre-Islamic poems rhapsodizing about the beauty, grace and speed of the poet's camel. They seemed quaint and curious in 1961, when no one was thinking about pandemics, and it's nice to think that modern Saudis still think so well of their camels.
But that was then, and this is now. If MERS is the threat it seems to be, the Saudis need to be taken aside for a quiet word by whoever is prepared to explain the problem to them while shaking them warmly by the throat.
MERS is not about the stability of the precious House of Saud and all its thousands of precious princelings. It's not even about preventing a possible pandemic. It's about building and maintaining a worldwide health surveillance system that can function regardless of the cultural hangups of this or that country so that the system can save millions of lives—regardless of pandemics or routine outbreaks.
The country could be China or Canada or Uganda or the oil-neurotic countries of the Gulf. Whatever its anxieties about some politically awkward bug, it would have to defer to the greater good: the wellbeing of the billions of us who prefer not to die from some virus that we can beat if only we, the global public, know what it is.