Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: When pestilence reaches our safe, secure shores

If the pandemic spreads from the 'Third World' will our solipsism make us hopeless?
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Be afraid, be very afraid, but don't panic, we are told. We may all soon die of the deadly H5N1 virus carried by birds. They will not pull out our eyes or peck us to death, as in Hitchcock's horror movie, but by flapping their innocent wings will carry pestilence across the waters from distant places - and are already in Romania according to the latest alert.

Why couldn't this killer flu stay put, felling surplus Koreans and Vietnamese? Is it really going to approach Harrow and Edinburgh? The most energetic members of the population are most at risk. The emerging scenario petrifies. Think about quarantines, the country shut down, the orphaned young and bereft old, black crosses perhaps on officially bolted doors?

Lethal battles could erupt over effective vaccines - stockpiles of supplies are severely inadequate to meet the impending crisis. It feels more menacing than the spread of Aids in the West because it appears unconnected to anything we do or can do. The official Civil Contingencies Secretariat has pronounced that this bird flu is a greater threat than terrorism. And yes, I have already imagined the worst, and the unbearable anguish.

And so, here at the Cheltenham Literature festival, teeming with the imaginative and creative, small talk has inevitably turned to the threat from avian flu. The grand theme and possibilities of sweeping narratives beckon. At a writer's supper on Saturday night, I sat with the best selling author Alexander McCall Smith, Ruth Padel, poet, great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin and author of extraordinary books on the Asian tiger, and Max Arthur, the oral historian who has collected eye-witness accounts of the First World War. The conversation ventured into fascinating areas beyond the catastrophe. How our fear of fear incapacitates us. How, within a century, the population has gone soft and spoilt, although, says Arthur, excellent training of soldiers still produces fearless men. The national psyche now demands eternal happiness, freedom from pain and the vagaries of age, soon from death itself. We got rich and believe that wealth should bring these guarantees in its wake. Doctors nurses and politicians be warned. Perfection is the least we expect from you.

When al-Qa'ida and other violent groups mount cruel attacks on civilians in the West, natural shock and grief are always accompanied by heated petulance and disbelief. It shouldn't happen to us, it is an outrage. Of course. I am not immune to these double standards myself. When the blasts ripped through London, I was quick to say this was a particularly, exceptionally wicked act. I thank the readers who gently reminded me that every week hundreds of (uncounted) people of Iraq suffer these same wounds, that in Karachi and Kabul and Gaza and Tel Aviv too, blameless souls are blown up so regularly we are barely interested in the body counts let alone the names and faces. The strength of bereaved Londoners was something to feel proud of, but to claim we are unique is crude vanity.

Instead of using the terrorist threat to connect with peoples of the world who must endure endless misery and carnage, and may therefore have something to teach us, western leaders have instead shamelessly restated their determination to keep humanity divided between those who have inherited a privileged existence and those who don't matter at all. Globalisation has connected us up but it also appears to have widened the chasm between the overvalued and the worthless.

We travel more than ever before, seeking places which are untried, exciting, unspoilt. Yet it has made no difference to the blind arrogance we take with us wherever we go. How many times have you or I ever given up any time on vacation to go and see how the ordinary inhabitants live in the so called Third World? Their schools and hospitals? The insides of their meagre homes or the pavements where they sleep and sit, eat and drink, urinate and defecate? The most distressed places have to put up a front for tourists. Bird flu will just be another of those punishments they will have to find a way of coping with.

So, if this pandemic spreads from them to us, will we carry on with the same iniquitous assumption that we have an inalienable right to be immune from disasters? Probably. So will this solipsism consequently make us hopeless in the coming crisis? Binyavanga Wainaina, an audacious Kenyan writer and publisher wrote in a prize-winning short story: "If there is a miracle in the idea of life it is this: that we are able to exist for a time - in defiance of chaos."

To be able to exist in defiance of the chaos the pandemic will bring. Can we? Will we?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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