SARS. IN a few weeks the word has rolled around the world, bringing panic and fear. SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. By the start of this week it had killed at least 200 people in seven countries and infected thousands more. The World Health Organisation warns, 'SARS could become the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential.'
SARS seems to be a mutant form of the common cold virus, and probably originated in the Guandong province of southern China. The fear that haunts health experts is that it could spread like the flu viruses that have periodically erupted in the same part of the world.
In 1968-9 'Hong Kong flu' killed around one million worldwide, as did the 1957-8 'Asian flu' epidemic. These paled compared to the 1918-9 flu epidemic which killed up to 40 million people worldwide. Flu normally lives in the stomachs of waterfowl, and is generally harmless. In southern China several thousand years ago farmers domesticated ducks, and used them alongside intensive rice farming. The ducks control rice pests, and fatten on leftover grains.
Domesticated animals such as chickens and pigs were raised in the same area. This created conditions in which the flu virus could shuffle between all these species. As it did so, like all viruses, it constantly mutated or changed form. Pigs are much closer genetically to humans than ducks or chickens. A flu virus which mutates in a pig is more likely to then infect humans. The great fear with SARS is that a similar process has taken place. But the fundamental reasons why any such disease spreads are social.
In 1918 the world had been ravaged by the First World War. Poverty, hunger and disease of all kinds flourished. Great concentrations of men crowded together in filthy conditions in camps, troop transports and trenches.
This was where the flu epidemic took root and then spread. Elsewhere, as in India under the British Empire, famine ensured the disease killed hundreds of millions. Today modern capitalism has made the spread of new diseases more likely. Southern China is now one of the world's great economic powerhouses. It has been transformed in recent decades in ways reminiscent of Europe's cities in the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
Guandong is home to huge new cities, with millions forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Often people are crammed slave-like into dormitories above ramshackle factories producing textiles, electronics and other goods for the world market. Sewerage and other public health measures are often non-existent.
Add to this often poor hygiene conditions in urban markets selling poultry, pigs and other foodstuffs, and you have ideal conditions for the emergence and spread of new flu-like viruses.
Business and profit have played their part in making the SARS outbreak worse. China's rulers covered it up initially, fearing it could hit the flow of foreign investment in search of cheap labour on which the economy of southern China depends. And in today's 'globalised' world air travel spreads diseases at a speed inconceivable in earlier decades.
SARS is unlikely to be the last new disease emerging from the chaos of global capitalism, which is also bringing back older diseases like TB, cholera and malaria. But the answers are relatively straightforward, and mean putting health before profit. That requires completely open information, which business considerations have blocked with SARS up to now.
Tackling insanitary, overcrowded living conditions, installing clean water and sewage systems, and proper public hygiene regimes are other key steps. All of this was well understood by those who pioneered moves to tackle diseases like cholera in 19th century industrial cities in Europe.
If a tenth of what the world's rulers spend on weapons and war was put into such measures then SARS would remain a nightmare and not a threatening reality.