Monday, November 23, 2009

Disaster Nationalism

The narrative of disease is a nationalistic one, as Priscilla Wald shows in her book "Contagious: Cultures, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative". Her telling of the the spread of AIDs in North America highlights this, and she claims that since World War II and the emergence of the study of virology, viruses and contagions have been tied to the war narrative. This is most evident in the 1980s, when the conflation of the Cold War narrative and that of the HIV virus brought about the notion of the virus as an "intruder" and "invader", brought to America through outsiders (Wald 156-7). For America, who shares borders with relatively few countries, disease penetration into the continent signifies a breach of boundary and an invasion into American territory. Viruses, though neutral in and of themselves, have to be incubated and spread through human carriers. The "third worldification" of disease, whereby disease is characterized as emerging from Africa and Asia further creates a fear of the outsider, and of the diseases originating from the dark continents.

Through the narrative of the infectious outsider, disease has thus been used as a tool of nationalism. In May, amidst threats of a global pandemic of Swine Flu, President Mubarak ordered the slaughter of the 300,000 pigs in Cairo. Largely owned by the the Coptic Christian community, the pigs were the livelihood of the zabaleen Coptics, the trashmen who feed the organic trash they collect to the pigs, and then later sell and eat the pigs. In an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, pigs are only raised and eaten by the Coptic Christians. The cultural attitudes by the Muslim population towards pigs as dirty creatures not to be eaten are enhanced by the emergence of Swine Flu and the move for the mass slaughter of all pigs was seen as an attack on the Christian community and their way of life. By culling the pigs, Mubarak and his regime are thus imposing their set of beliefs and their lifestyle upon the people of Cairo.

Despite these measures, deemed misguided by newspapers and medical authorities, Swine Flu still founds its way into Cairo through American students studying at the American University in Cairo, prompting the closure of the university for two weeks. Consequently, the trash problem in Cairo has only worsened without the presence of pigs to consume organic waste.

Suffering from low support, and highly influenced by the previous SARS outbreak, the government of Hong Kong decided in June to take severe precautionary measures towards Swine Flu, all kindergarten and primary school for the rest of the school year, as well as any school with a student infected with Swine Flu. Perhaps the most well-known incident is the quarantine of an entire hotel and plane following the identification of Swine Flu. Given the population density in Hong Kong and the reliance on public transportation, the spread of any disease would be swift. However, as the government began contemplating the closure of all secondary schools, newspaper reports began reporting ulterior motives behind the extreme measures: The government, these reports claimed (in Chinese), was attempting to create panic and fear within the population in order to garner support for itself and to unite and rally the population. Disasters have that ability, as the US experienced following 9/11 and Katrina. Hong Kong's government, according to these newspapers, was attempting to create that atmosphere. However, the mildness of Swine Flu and its low death rate prevented real panic from taking hold.

Nonetheless, it is evident that both the Hong Kong and Egyptian governments attempted to use the Swine Flu epidemic towards their own goals, and to create a "disaster nationalism" whereby the community would be united by a common threat. Rather than a notion of patriotism, nations are then united by fear. Disease is one example, terrorism is another. Unlike the 20th century, whereby fear was directed at specific nations, the 21st century threat is defined by transnationalism and amorphism.

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