Monday, April 28, 2003

Betting on SARS

I can understand how Canadians must feel right about now.

They’re outraged. Really ticked off. Last week, the World Health Organization issued a Traveler’s Advisory warning urging visitors to avoid Toronto unless they have urgent business there. The reason, as we all know by now: fear of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

We in Israel certainly have been there.

For the past few years, the US State Department has repeatedly advised Americans to steer clear of our fair country. Not that there isn’t what to worry about. Terror is indiscriminate and a visitor here could very well be involved in a serious incident. No one knows that better than us: we lost our cousin Marla a year ago in the July 31, 2002 attack at Hebrew University.

But the warning, dripping with official sternness, always made it seem that simply walking down the street, at all times and in every place, posed an immediate and incontrovertible danger to life, limb and the pursuit of happiness. And that's simply not our day-to-day experience.

I imagine that must be how it feels to the average Torontonian as well.

Travel Advisories have a more insidious impact. Tourism in Israel has been decimated. The entire economy is in acute doldrums. No doubt, it would have been hurt by the violence regardless. But an official warning takes away a certain degree of freedom of choice.

For example: student groups that could still have come for summer trips - even if that entailed sequestering themselves in protected buses and at officially sanctioned and secure events - chose instead to preach Zionism in Poland…or Florida. Federation missions, similarly, have been repeatedly delayed.

After all, the argument went, if the State Department said it’s not safe to come, who are we to argue otherwise?

That was all the ammunition our own families needed.

“We heard on the news,” they have duly informed us on more than one occasion, “that all non-essential personnel should leave. You don’t seem very essential. Why aren’t you coming home? Now!

But the pendulum swings both ways.

Jody’s sister and brother-in-law and their six children live in Toronto. But Jody’s sister is not originally from Canada. With the new Travel Advisory, shouldn’t she, too, leave immediately? Return home (in this case to Los Angeles) to sit out the duration of the SARS epidemic?

What if the spread of SARS continues at a low but still dangerous boil for years? Does she stay in LA indefinitely? What about her family? And what happens then if SARS spreads and affects ordinary folks in Los Angeles as well?

SARS may be perceived today as a problem mainly affecting the Far East and Canada. But terrorism was once seen as primarily a Middle Eastern problem. Then came 9/11.

And yet, is the panic truly justified? Let’s look at the statistics. There have been over 2000 SARS cases in China and more than 100 people have died. But that’s out of a population of over 1.26 billion. What are the chances of getting infected by SARS vs. getting run down by a Beijing tram?

If I were a betting man, I’d say that SARS is not all that much to worry about.

And still, bet we do. In so many aspects of our life.

When the violence first broke out in Israel in September 2000, we began to make all kind of bets based on probabilities and historical data in order to decide where we would go or which roads we felt safe to drive on. Had there been a shooting on that road? Nixed. A bomb on that bus line. Off the list.

The more analytical among our friends repeated the mantra that more people have been killed by traffic accidents than by terror incidents. So statistically, they argued, it was still safer to stand in the center of Ramallah than to get behind the wheel of your own car.

But gut emotions don’t always follow the rational machinations of modern minds.

And so we have the current pandemonium where CNN has gone almost overnight from non-stop coverage of the war in Iraq to scenes of deserted schools in Beijing and passengers with gas masks at airports in Toronto, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Here’s an irony: Jody and I have been planning a big trip to the Far East for some time now. I used to do a lot of traveling for work and I racked up enough points to score two free tickets to wherever El Al goes.

We decided on China. When?

May, 2003.

So, are we going? Not a chance. Of course SARS has spooked us. And it would be highly imprudent to belittle the seriousness of what could still turn out to be an epidemic of global proportions. Maybe we’ll go to China in the fall if things have calmed down. Or we’ll pick a different exotic El Al destination – India or South Africa perhaps.

But what if SARS has spread to those places too by then? The tickets are only good for a year. Do we forfeit the trip of a lifetime for an infinitesimal possibility of getting sick? And if we picked a supposedly safe spot, who’s to say we wouldn’t get kidnapped and shot while stopping for cash at an ATM?

Obviously, throwing caution to the wind is not something we do casually. But in a world going increasingly mad, fraught with new and previously unknown dangers every day, the only way to survive, to make sense of it all, is to keep on living our normal lives. We can’t let the terrorists, the viruses, or whatever comes next – get us down.

Of course, that’s just what we in Israel have already had to learn after suffering years of violence. Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to get that (positive) message, too.

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