Culture Guides

Bird Flu

Let’s face it: travel today is a privilege. Once upon a time people traveled to Mecca by camel or hitchhiked across America in trucks. Today’s travelers exchange tales about far-flung places like Cambodia or Peru like they compare features on their newest mobile phones. We take for granted the enormous access our passports give us and how easy it is to hop on a plane and be anywhere in a matter of hours. The bird flu, should it hit, will be a rude awakening for globetrotters.

International news headlines are filled with forebodings of a coming avian flu pandemic similar to the one that killed up to 50 million people in 1918. That’s the population of Spain.

In one sense, the bird flu is already here. The birds already have it. Chickens, ducks and even swans dead from the virus have been found in places as scattered as Nigeria, Indonesia, and France. People have already died from bird flu in Southeast Asia and Turkey. While cases of human-to-human transmission are still low, according to the World Health Organisation, it’s just a! matter of time before the virus mutates. While there are vaccines and a pill known as Tamiflu to combat the disease, the task of creating enough supply in time is simply impossible.

The privilege of continent-hopping that travelers have today is the very same thing that makes the epidemic so threatening. Bird flu already migrates with the birds as they periodically cross oceans. Human flight is the major risk factor in worldwide transmission. It doesn’t take much for Joe in his suit to hop on a plane from Singapore with the flu and take it home to New York.

The SARS scare stemmed from this fact. Toronto saw cases that probably came from Hong Kong via air travel with the effect that both of those cities probably had fewer tourists than outer space at the time. But SARS was mostly mass hysteria. Flu spreads much more quickly and easily than SARS. Imagine what a legion of backpackers and budget travelers who mingle with large masses of the world’s poorer populations would do for spreading the bug.

The implications for the traveler are not good. With only a handful of human deaths worldwide, not much has happened yet. Customs may have added an additional “Have you handled chickens?” to their forms but that’s about it.

But the times they are achangin’. Not many people alive today have experience with how society functions during plagues. The gist of it is that person-to-person contact is driven to a minimum. Towns close off to keep people in or out. If the flu hits (or when it hits) the first thing to go will be leisure travel.

An article in the New York Times goes so far to suggest that major cities would shut down schools, subways and large gatherings like sporting events and theater. We’d all have to wear surgical masks as if the Japanese had conquered the world. Travel, if allowed, might not be much fun anyway.

And would travelers still be welcome anywhere? We’ve all seen how the media like to whip up panic and frenzy at the drop of a President’s hat – think weapons of mass destruction – would the average backpacker now be a threat to national security? Would the locals now throw stones at the stranger rolling in with dust at his heels and microbes in his breath?

Worse, if travel were banned completely, we’d all have to get used to living in the same place for a while. And if all the backpackers got quarantined then it would be like a government-run hostel. (“So how long have you been here? Where are you going next?”)

Worse still, what would the future hold for travel sites like Road Junky? (okay, maybe we’re a little out of perspective here…)