Why MERS Matters

A new lethal disease from some far-flung corner of the world has made its way into the headlines again. MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) has invaded Korea and set the country in a minor panic as it has killed two people and infected dozens in only two weeks. In 2003, SARS became a major concern when it killed over 700 people in six months before finally being contained. There are hundreds of epidemics throughout recorded history, with the deadliest coming before the age of modern medicine. That knowledge gives us an unjustified confidence that with science, we will always be able to contain these pathogens.

If we can learn anything from Hollywood movies like Contagion, Outbreak or even the fictional zombie apocalypses, we know that eventually, some badass virus with a malicious swagger will come along to remind us that nature’s innate, self-sustaining cruelty doesn’t respect our revolutionary medical remedies. These biological anomalies, these parasitical, self-driven monsters can be seen as nature’s cure for overpopulation. In the same way that there is a food chain to maintain balance, viruses have or will one day have transplanted themselves above humans atop that sequence.

Our precarious global population explosion of the past two hundred years, most notably since the 1960’s at around a one billion-person increase per 15 years, must be unsustainable. Climate change, as effected by massive deforestation, factory farming, unsafe pollution levels, melting glaciers and humanity’s unwillingness to observe let alone reduce the causes could be influencing both the macro and microscopic levels of life. Not only could many coastal cities be flooded within a century at current levels of sea rise, but also the tiny organisms surrounding us may become more malevolent and destructive.

Why should we be so arrogant to think that nothing could stop these paradigms of perfection known as people? Why should we believe in the power of science to save these specimens of superiority from disaster? There is no cure or vaccine for MERS. Fortuitously, it isn’t highly contagious and we seem to be able to contain it due to fairly quick (less than a week) symptom detection. What happens when there comes along a little bug, a little bug who studied human behavior, and learned how to be passed along through the air or through skin contact or how to stay dormant for weeks? The idea should be terrifying. Barring a calamitous, yet nevertheless inevitable meteor strike, a pandemic is the next most believable end for modern society.

I see my confusingly confident friends haughtily lambasting Korean parents for keeping their children home from school. I see Facebook hater groups laughing off school closings due to this serious disease as if it was a pre-cancellation for a typhoon that never arrived (see: Typhoon Bolaven). Yes, Korea will probably quarantine the right people, an unlucky few will die and the panic will subside. I’m just worried about the time when quarantine becomes numerically unfeasible, the unlucky become the majority and the panic becomes hysteria. Until then, maybe we should cancel school this week. It’s better to be safe than sorry. <wink>

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