Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Collapsing Roof: Zika and other plagues

Processionary caterpillars, red palm beetles, tiger mosquitoes, Asian hornets, Ebola, bird flu. Go back some time and there was Aids, foot and mouth, Mad Cow Disease. All these things sent to plague us or someone or something else, some of them through transmission, some because that's how it is. Go back even further and there was the Black Death or there were the ten plagues of Egypt. So many plagues, too many to mention, but try a few more of a Mallorcan style: plagues of jellyfish; the plague of phylloxera devastating vines; the potential plague of the Epitrix potato bug.

Not all of these, of course, have a direct consequence or potential consequence on tourism. A processionary caterpillar might be unpleasant but it is far from unique to Mallorca. It's also around when there are comparatively few tourists. Moreover, there is no risk of any transmission. It's a nasty thing, but that's all, and so long as you are aware of it, you avoid it ... like the plague. Tourists (and residents) might be fearful of jellyfish, but again, they are to be feared elsewhere. It's the major risks or plagues, the possible pandemics that arouse the concern. And now we can add the Zika virus to the list.

Plagues have always been visited upon us: just ask the ancient Egyptians. Or, and for a scholarly perspective, ask Thomas Malthus, who first advanced his views on plagues (and other things) in 1798. Malthus might have been dubbed a "catastrophist", had such a term existed at the end of the eighteenth century. Plagues, famine, wars: they were all much the same where Malthus was concerned. He didn't want them, but if society needed its population checking in line with available resources - food, most obviously - then a good plague could help in correcting supply and demand.

Human movement has a lot to answer for, as does human need for resources that are packed onto ships, aircraft and other means of transportation and which are typically the media for transmission. But just as the scale of this movement is staggering, are the claims for risk staggeringly and excessively stated? Not being a virologist, one can perhaps take a simplistic view of such matters, but Portugal, with its high level of connectivity with one of the Zika epicentres - Brazil - has thus far recorded only five cases. In Spain there have been three, two of them in Catalonia. The director of the World Health Organization suggests, however, that Zika is expanding in an explosive manner.

An expert, and fortunately there always is one when one needs one, considers the chances of Zika transmission in Spain as possible but only slightly probable. Which is, one has to assume, reassuring. The expert, Rolegio López-Vélez of the centre for tropical diseases at the University Hospital Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, explains how the whole life cycle of the virus would have to be gone through in effecting transmission. It does seem unlikely, as is also the thought that the tiger mosquito might be capable of being a carrier (which it isn't). Another expert suggests that it might but that there has been no study into its ability to do so.

The risk is of course at its greatest in the Americas, which is why, for example, Iberia are taking Zika seriously. Its president, Luis Gallego, has observed in a somewhat sombre fashion that "in aviation things happen that no one expects". Which is true. Who, in tourism and travel planning terms, ever expected the ash cloud? Things can suddenly bite you and it will be more than just "Aedes aegypti", the yellow fever mosquito with added Zika. What was that about the plagues of Egypt?

Risks shouldn't be downplayed, of course they shouldn't, but risks have always been with us. It is just that the massive movement of people and of transport media of all types have heightened the risks, allied to massive information availability that even a few years ago did not exist. In a sense, it is this latter aspect which can appear to exacerbate risks and speak of a wholly different plague that confronts us and confronts tourism, here in Mallorca and everywhere else: that of terrorism.

When one notes on Facebook someone saying that she will not be travelling to Spain because of an ISIS threat, it is perhaps too easy to dismiss this as an over-reaction. But some people do react in this way. It's their interpretation of the information they are given.

Ultimately, though, you either do or you don't travel, and the vast, the overwhelming majority do. Risks of plagues, risks of terrorism, you would never go anywhere if you took heed of all the information. But then you might end up, as a famous cartoon once depicted, as the man who chose to never leave his bed because of all the risks. The roof collapsed on top of him.

No comments: