Saturday, 20 April 2013

My First Letter To The China Post: On Terrorism & Avian Flu


In today's editorial (Saturday 20th April), written in response to the recent HSR bomb-scare and the bombing of the Boston marathon, the question is put as to what other changes besides altered security measures are necessary. Whilst it may be productive to look beyond what most of us would recognize as altered security measures, it is interesting that this view was not taken in last Wednesday's editorial on the subject of the latest bird-flu scare. When it comes to bomb scares, the government is urged to act with restraint and to look beyond the obvious panopticon policy responses; yet when it comes to bird flu, the government is urged to act immediately to prohibit the sale of poultry in traditional markets.

Perhaps the threat of terrorism and the threat of bird-flu epidemics have something in common; they are exaggerated.

In the case of the two miserable specimens who tried but failed to set off a bomb on the HSR, the alertness and common sense of passengers proved sufficient to save the carriage from being torn apart and this alone is indicative that this is not anything remotely like a professionalized terrorist threat. A genuine terrorist attack on the HSR would most likely target it at its weakest points, which are not the stations and insides of carriages themselves but rather the concrete support pillars for the elevated sections of the railway. Nonetheless, an actual bomb-scare is not something to be celebrated by any means but the existence of two bad apples does not mean the entire orchard is rotten; the claim that there is something "fundamentally" wrong with Taiwan's society is more akin to the sort of unwarranted panic response that the two  presumably wanted to generate.

In the case of this latest strain of avian flu virus, there are several good reasons to think that the possibility of a particularly deadly epidemic is unlikely to occur. To begin with, the increased exposure of Taiwan's population to a broader range of non-deadly virus strains through greater travel and trade links with China and elsewhere will probably result in greater immunological resistance to any particular new virus strain. Secondly, it must be remembered that to the extent that a virus' reproductive success is dependent upon the activities of its host, there will be selection pressure on virus strains to keep their host alive - and thus the probability of truly deadly viruses emerging is likely to be low. That hypothesis also fits with the historical record of many non-deadly viruses and a very few deadly ones. Finally, the deadliness of a virus throughout a human population is likely to be exacerbated by things like malnutrition and third-world hygiene - both of which are conditions that, if not perfectly eradicated, are now increasingly rare in Taiwan.

However, perhaps the threat of terrorism and the threat of bird-flu epidemics also have something else in common; there are people who stand to benefit from different forms of government intervention in either case.

With respect to the bomb-scare, perhaps this will raise the stock price of CCTV manufacturers and the budgets of local police forces if they are to be expected to hold a greater presence at HSR stations, irrespective of whether they actually make things safer or not. For an illustration of this lunacy taken to extremes, one need look no further than the U.S. where children's shoes are inspected for bombs and men refused boarding permission to airplanes on account of wearing transformer T-shirts depicting robots holding guns.

With respect to a possible bird-flu epidemic, the ban on the sale of live poultry in traditional markets throughout Taiwan will have two curious effects. First, it will put lots of poor people out of work on account of a low risk of what seems so far to be a relatively mild and not-deadly infection*, and second it will ensure that supermarkets, whose suppliers can presumably afford to comply with the stricter controls, will no longer have to worry about competition from Taiwan's traditional markets. After all, why bother to serve the needs of society openly on the free-market when you can just defraud the public and extort a living for yourself via government intervention? It's not like it hasn't been tried before.

Yours freely,
Michael Fagan.

(Published in the China Post, Wednesday April 24th 2013).

*Mea Culpa: H7N9 has so far killed 22 people, so it is in fact "deadly", but what I meant was that because those fatalities seem to have been people with already weak immune systems (e.g. from age), the virus is not especially "powerful". It was poorly phrased and the letter perhaps should not have been published for that reason alone.

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