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Last Updated: 07/28/2003
SARS and the High Moral Ground
Fayen D'Evie

The hysteria surrounding SARS has abated, but has it left a legacy by recasting infectious disease as a more central security concern?

By July 2003, 8439 people around the world had been affected by SARS, with 812 fatalities.  News articles referred to SARS as a “silent killer”.  As public hysteria grew, accusations of SARS-related discrimination and racism surfaced around the world.  In China, paranoia about where SARS patients would be quarantined erupted into violent “Not-in-my-backyard” riots.  Fear of contracting SARS through international travel, combined with travel restrictions imposed by various national and international authorities, led to massive losses in the tourism industry, with flow-on impacts on jobs and growth in retail and other economic sectors.  Heads of state declared SARS a national security concern, with President Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines directing the Armed Forces to support government efforts to control the disease.  In the US, thousands of customs and immigrations inspectors and cadres of new homeland security workers were trained to spot symptoms of SARS and detain anyone who appeared to have SARS.  In Hong Kong, a system used by the police force for electronic tracking in the course of criminal investigations was adapted to monitor compliance with SARS quarantine measures. 


On face value, it would appear that a serious political reconsideration of the human security implications of infectious disease had indeed emerged from heightened public concern about the impacts of SARS on personal safety and well-being, social stability, and prosperity. SARS challenged conventional approached to governance of infectious disease that perceived such diseases as medical problems demanding medical, as opposed to securitised, responses.  The SARS pandemic spurred new measures for multilateral cooperation in monitoring and prompt international reporting of virulent diseases. 


However, this optimistic analysis is tempered somewhat when one considers the broader political framework, and the history of infectious disease and security.  Firstly, the triumph of newly securitised responses to SARS by many countries, credited for helping contain the virulent disease so rapidly, must be understood in the context of unusually high levels of national planning and preparedness for potential bio-terrorist attacks.  Several months’ media frenzy over anthrax and Al Quaeda’s and Saddam’s presumed biological weapons had attuned the public exceptionally to infectious disease paranoia.  In this context, global anxiety about SARs proved more virulent than the disease itself, and the economic repercussions of public fear and hysteria provided a strong incentive for decisive political action.  The appearance that leaders were treating SARs as a security concern was necessary from a public relations perspective to allay the hysteria, and encourage the resumption of tourism and trade.  Furthermore, in terms of the actions taken, old-fashioned public health control measures were overwhelmingly the tool of choice, outweighing serious innovations in infectious disease governance. 


The pessimistic view that without the media frenzy, politicians may have been less prompt and decisive about addressing SARS governance, and may now ease off on infectious disease governance reform, is supported by the trajectory of international action to combat AIDS.  AIDS was the first infectious disease to be addressed as a serious threat to international security by the UN Security Council, and the numbers of people affected dwarf SARS: around 42 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and 3 million died of the disease in 2002 alone.  Yet despite decades of political pronouncements, the international community is still struggling to turn commitments, rhetoric and press releases of $15 billion AIDS relief packages into credible, concerted multilateral action to stem the AIDS epidemic. 


So how far will the current reconsideration of infectious disease as a security concern go?  If it proves to be confined largely to reactionary policies concerning SARS and bio-terrorism threats, and does not pay sufficient attention to root causes, then there is a grave danger that countries will be critically ill-prepared for future disease outbreaks.  For several years, isolated voices[1][2][3] have been warning that traditional concepts of security ignore the serious threat posed by newly-appearing infectious diseases, and the spread of existing diseases to new geographic areas.  These warnings have often come in the context of concerns that environmental changes are enabling acceleration in the spread of infectious diseases, and escalation in their lethality.  Overpopulation, the growth of mega-cities, and ecological disruption are argued to have created conditions that allow pathogens to emerge and flourish.  Addressing root causes, and preventing future disease outbreaks, may thus involve a critical examination of prevailing patterns of development, and not merely more extensive and militarized quarantine measures. 


This is particularly pertinent given projections of disease outbreaks with global warming.  In the case of malaria, global temperature increases will expand the latitudinal range of the disease, while also increasing the biting rate of the malaria-carrying mosquitos.  Thus, there is projected to be a vast increase in the numbers of immunologically vulnerable people affected, and a dramatic rise in morbidity and mortality rates.  Some of the countries so quick to point the finger at China’s initial failures in responding to SARS would have their claims to moral high ground seriously tested by a greenhouse-related disease epidemic, given continuing reticence to adopt aggressive emission abatement policies.  But perhaps such a disease outbreak would provide the incentive for unprecedented actions to tackle global warming – if a media frenzy can be stirred up.


[1] Price-Smith, A. 2002. Chapter 5: Environmental Change and Disease Proliferation, plus p176-180 of Ch 6: Conclusion, in The Health of Nations: Infectious Disease, Environmental Change, and their Effects on National Security and Development. Boston: MIT Press.

[2] Pirages, D. 1995. “Microsecurity: Disease Organisms and Human Well-being”, The Washington Quarterly, 18:4.

[3] Epstein P. 1994. “Emerging diseases and ecosystem instability: New threats to public health”. American Journal of Public Health, 1994; 85: pp168-172

Fayen D'Evie is an expert in Environmental Security and is currently advising the University of Peace in the implementation of its new MA in this area for 2004.