Earlier today I tweeted about the suspected second case of MERS in Egypt. A fellow-Canadian, David Fisman, replied: "Seems like a confluence of #mers and extreme political instability bodes ill?"
Well, it certain doesn't bode well. But his remark got me thinking about the political effects of an outbreak like MERS.
All the emerging diseases are still pretty smalltime killers: H5N1, H7N9, MERS, Ebola. MERS in Saudi Arabia has killed 102 persons since September 2012. According to Worldometers, malaria has killed over 313,000 persons so far this year—2,677 today alone. The 1918-19 flu pandemic may have killed 50 million worldwide, but it didn't cause any political instability (unless you count its impact on the German army's spring 1918 offensive on the Western Front, which failed in part because so many soldiers were sick). Well, OK, Russia went communist, but no one's ever blamed Lenin's rise on flu in the Kerensky government.
Still, the new diseases do carry political impact. Most people have factored in the burden of diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS; they're part of the background noise, and we don't usually blame our governments for them. A new disease, however, is scary. Its effects are unknown, and if it kills a high proportion of its victims, people get nervous. They start to recall a paragraph in the unwritten social contract they have with their government: We put up with your nonsense and you protect us from disasters.
MERS has been especially awkward for the Saudis because the vast majority of cases have occurred in the Kingdom. This makes the king and whole House of Saud look bad. The first strategy for ridding the country of the embarrassment was to say as little as possible about it. That kept the rest of the world in the dark, but when Saudi healthcare workers turned hospitals into chaos, Plan B was called for. Hence a new acting health minister and a radically different health-communication policy.
I doubt that MERS has caused political instability in the Kingdom; that would imply a potential change of government, which is hard to imagine at this point. But it has certainly caused political annoyance, which Acting Minister Faqih is so far soothing very effectively.
In the case of Egypt, I suspect it would take several hundred MERS cases, most of them among government officials and politicians, to worsen that country's political instability. Would General Sisi's supporters, terrified by MERS, turn back to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood? Not even in a parallel universe.
At most, the political casualty rate in any country with a MERS outbreak is likely to be a health minister or two, and maybe a few senior bureaucrats. Plus, of course, the poor patients. But the fear of political embarrassment should encourage most governments to make a serious effort to fight the virus.