Tuberculosis, Air Travel And Joseph Conrad

I was listening to a story on National Public Radio about the latest development in the case of Andrew Speaker, the tuberculosis patient who is presently among the world’s least popular airline passengers. And what came to mind was: Lord Jim.

Bear with me.

In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Jim is a mariner who appears to face a dire choice. He can die a hero aboard a sinking ship full of helpless passengers or he can abandon ship with the other officers. He abandons the ship, but it fails to sink and hence his shameful behavior is revealed.

Speaker made a choice that is a bit like that in nature, though not degree. He was in Europe on his honeymoon when the Centers for Disease Control contacted him and told him not to fly because he was believed to have a severe and very dangerous form of tuberculosis. He flew anyway, potentially exposing dozens of strangers to a deadly disease. He said at the time that he feared he might die in Europe if he were quarantined there.

Turns out, he has a slightly less severe and somewhat less dangerous form of tuberculosis. So anybody he might have infected is less likely to end up dead. (The CDC points out that its advice against flying would have been the same, anyway.)

Speaker certainly didn’t mean to harm anyone. But he put strangers at risk to protect himself.

Would any of us have acted differently? We probably will never have to find out. That was kind of Joseph Conrad’s point. Jim wasn’t a bad man. He just wasn’t the hero he thought he was, or as selfless as others expected him to be.

After his new diagnosis, Speaker suggested in a news conference that the CDC ruined his reputation. But I think he ruined it himself.


5 thoughts on “Tuberculosis, Air Travel And Joseph Conrad

  1. Guy Bermytal

    I disagree. The Speaker story is yet another use of fear in the media. The underlying objective is really to get money for developing new antibiotics for TB — which will fail, because they don’t address the cause of the disease. But who cares about the truth.

  2. PF

    Having not heard the NPR story, I have no idea what the PC opinion is so pardon me if I don’t adhere to it or address it.
    When the story first broke, I thought this man sounded not like a scared and desperate individual but like an entitled brat. This opinion has not changed although I’ve read subsequent news reports on the story.
    I can’t believe he flew without wearing a mask, without any regard for the lives and health of the people who would be around him. I think the guy deserves jail time for knowingly, intentionally putting so many people at risk. That it turned out to be risk for even the less than totally horrible form of TB is completely irrelevant since the less than terrible TB still is TB, and even plain old TB is pretty bad. There’s no “we’ll never know” here. We know. He was sick. He was told not to fly. He flew anyhow, and he didn’t even have the decency to take basic precautions (also, he went on a european honeymoon trip when he was that sick or that potentially sick? Can I get a “duh”?).
    If we as individuals can’t show a little more personal responsibility and sense than this man displayed, we don’t DESERVE the liberties we claim rights to.

  3. Matt

    I think its shameful that the media and editorialists are blaming Andrew Speaker for the TB scare and not placing the blame where it truly belongs: the CDC and Fulton County Health Department.
    How, in the 21st century, does the world’s superpower claim it was Andrew Speaker’s fault that he wanted to come back home?
    Speaker testified before the US Senate and House that the CDC nor the Fulton County Health Dept ever told him he posed a risk to other people.
    In fact, the CDC (Dr. Gerberding) has admitted that the CDC didn’t contact Speaker in Rome – rather, Speaker contacted the CDC to find out about his TB results!
    After they informed him he was on the no-fly list, Speaker says he repeatedly asked, “What’s changed since I left the U.S.?” The CDC told him nothing has changed, but they wanted him to quarantine himself in Italy.
    I don’t know about the rest of the readers, or the Conrad like example in this editorial, but if I knew my condition required cutting-edge treatment in the US and my government abandoned me in Italy because it didn’t have the “budget” to get me back to the States, I would make a run for it too.
    And for those who say he shouldn’t have left for Europe in the first place, how can you not blame the government for that too? They were unable to find either him or his family to give him the letter informing him he shouldn’t fly? Come on – he and his father has a lawfirm in North Atlanta, his address, his parents’ address, his extended family’s addresses are all in the phone book.
    I think most people who had invested in an overseas wedding would not cancel such an event on a whim unless they were fully aware of the potential risks.
    Our government failed to do its job and now is tragically using Andrew Speaker as a scapegoat.
    As a last note, Andrew Speaker’s father is a heavily decorated Vietnam War veteran for valor, selflessness, and putting his own life in extreme risk for the benefit of others. I’m not sure I believe Andrew Speaker would place others in harm’s way for his own benefits after being raised by such an individual.


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