There’s nothing like the threat of infectious disease to test the courage and compassion of humanity.
Responses range from the saintly self-sacrifice of Father Damien among the lepers to the burning of Chinatown in Honolulu under fear of bubonic plague. And that’s just Hawaii.
In Australia, authorities recently had to figure out what to do about a cruise ship, the P&O Pacific Dawn, with three staff members recovering from swine flu. There was talk of a full-blown quarantine — refusing to allow any passengers off the ship.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Passengers were allowed to disembark at Brisbane and, after being screened, are being asked to quarantine themselves at home. It looks as if the rest of the passengers will be allowed off in similar fashion in Sydney.
That’s a very cautious approach, and a humane one. There are already hundreds of confirmed cases of swine flu in Australia, but nobody in that country has died. This flu spreads easily, but does not seem at this point to be any more deadly than an ordinary flu.
Contrast Australia’s behavior with that of China, which was quarantining Mexican visitors on no other grounds than their nationality.
Civil liberties are often threatened in pandemics, and often to no public health benefit. If swine flu does end up posing a serious threat, panic will not serve us well.