Don's diary: communicable diseases

May 16, 2003

Yesterday, the World Health Organisation website showed only two recorded cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in Malaysia, fewer than in the UK. But Singapore is nearby, so it is with some trepidation that I leave Leeds for Kuala Lumpur, where I have established an international masters programme in information management at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. On arrival, I immediately notice many people wearing facemasks.

The students, an international group drawn from the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations, are nearing the end of their intensive one-year programme. They are almost certainly the hardest working, most enthusiastic students I have taught. In June, they are due to start internships in EU or Asean countries, but Sars complicates an already tricky logistical matter. One group is bound for Hanoi, which is on the WHO list of places to avoid. My colleagues joke that perhaps I might not be able to return to the UK or will have to be quarantined. This is greeted with, at best, hollow laughter.

Students and colleagues have been talking about Sars - hinting that perhaps official statistics are not entirely accurate and that they have other information from text messages, the internet, friends and compatriots. Given that the programme is centred on information management, we take up the issue of Sars in terms of information, communications and technology. What will be the impact of the virus on the use and manufacture of thermal-imaging technology (often used at airports, in much the same manner as metal detectors, to measure body temperature), and is it sufficiently accurate to distinguish between 37.5C and 38C? I also point out that many misleading and panic-induced responses to Sars are similar to those surrounding Aids in the 1980s, although rumours and scares now spread faster via new forms of communications technology.

Today's New Straits Times includes an article drawing parallels not only with Aids but also with the Black Death in 17th-century Britain.

This reinforces a point I have made repeatedly: that information management has a far longer history than information technology.

The students present their group work, offering accounts of the Luddites, the development of the internet as a process involving social and market issues as well as technical ones, and the insights into our society offered by authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson.

At the airport, I study the masks people are wearing. Most seem ineffectual. One passenger starts coughing and becomes the focus of attention and avoidance behaviour simultaneously. I arrive in Leeds after changing planes in Amsterdam. No thermal imaging, no quarantine. In the UK, people's comments and jokes echo those in Kuala Lumpur. Maybe they will abate after ten days.

Tony Bryant is Asia-Europe chair at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, and professor of informatics at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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