23 November 2006


"Defense against the spread of germs has kept pace with the onslaught of increasingly efficient speed of communication: it is the old story of the contest between armour-plating and the armour-piercing shell, each in turn having the advantage"
-from Germs and Diseases by Andre Siegried

So I'm writing one of my final papers on biological warfare, threats of "foreign" disese and discourses of contagiousness during the cold war. It isn't exactly elevator conversation. I got halfway through explaining how anthrax really does seem to be the most effective, and frightening bio weapon, when I noticed half a bus of people had gone silent and were all staring at me. It's a really creepy topic. It's also very weird to read about how people always try to label a disease as "foreign." For example, many people racistly argued that the black plague was brought to Europe and South America by the slaves, when it was really transported by rats in the horrific conditions of the slave ships. More recently, I remember SARS being referred to as an "Asian" disease, which hopped on some planes and travelled into Toronto.

In a lot of cases, these diseases have no connection to the people of the countries the "originate" from. They are viruses, vectors and parasites that use humans as hosts. They are not the fault or characteristic of the people who are afflicted by them. They are also not very easily transmitted. Calling a disease Asian just fuels the racism of the ignorant. Sheesh. Also,I seem to remember, not too long ago when people refused to visit us in the deep suburbs, simply because we lived too close to the "contaminated" Toronto. These people certainly didn't want to be ostracized by their neighbours. As you may recall, not only was that the summer of SARS, but also of [one suspected case] of Mad Cow Disease in Alberta. That was a tough summer for Canadian tourism. Too many people have watched Outbreak and the ridiculous footage of thousands of people wearing surgical masks around the city.

I worked as a SARS screener for a summer, in a retirement home. Fascinating to see some people drown their hands in the antibacterial lotion to arm themselves against an airborne disease. Other people just laughed at me in the mask, and carried on to visit their grandparents. There are different levels of fear I suppose.

I've also had many friends who have worked as West Nile exterminators during the summer. From what I understand, their jobs consisted of seeking out mosquito havens (see image above) and draining them, or blasting them with pesticide. I wonder how effective that was? Aussie?

But yeah, some of the diseases I am reading about are legitimately terrifying. The thing is, that the scariest diseases always seem to be the ones we consider foreign, because our standards of living protect us to a great extent. As Siegfried's book Germs and Ideologies notes, "The plague is a virulent disese peculiar to certain countries. In all these countries its virus must exist, ready to resume its active from whenever the conditions of climate,poverty or famine give it a fresh opportunity." Those countries with the worst conditions are at the mercy of these diseases, and yet we have the arrogance to call them foreign, as if the disparity of living conditions is in no way connected to us.

An actual bio warfare attack could go undetected. That is what makes me the most uneasy. However, my point is that we should inform ourselves before pointing fingers, and hiding.

The only thing I'm worried about catching is some of the cynicism and antisociability that seems part of being a grad student. There are some awesome people, don't get me wrong. It's more the atmosphere of nerd-level education I guess. But I'm determined to keep my idealistic ways. I don't want to be a cynic. That's what I have Brian for :)

Anyone getting a flu shot this season?

Also, if you want some cheesy information on bio warfare from 1952, check this out.

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