viral outbreak

Airport screening isn’t about stopping Ebola – it’s about controlling borders

Screening passengers might calm the public, but it won’t stop Ebola.

In 1728, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI ordered that a 1,900-km fortified chain of guard posts along the entire eastern boundary of his lands be made into a permanent Pestkordon. Travellers and their goods could be inspected and detained there, and quarantined when desired.

Ostensibly, this was to prevent plague from entering his empire from the lands of the Turks and Slavs to the east. But plague had already left western Europe before the cordon was built. Charles knew that border checks serve economic and political purposes far more effectively than they prevent disease.

In the face of today’s Ebola outbreak, the clamor for travel bans, airport screening and border closings is a reminder that sanitary cordons continue to appeal – and for the same reason: fear of disease is easily exploited to achieve political ends.

Last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced enhanced screening for Ebola at five US airports where a high volume of passengers from West Africa land, beginning with JFK. Six Canadian airports will begin “targeted temperature screening”, the Public Health Agency of Canada said, as will Heathrow and Gatwick airports in England. All of that is in addition to the screening measures already implemented at the airports in West Africa, where the outbreak is centered. As of October 13, some say that’s not enough and want to ban flights from the African outbreak zone.


Sanitary cordons and quarantines can make it harder for aid to reach those who need it.


Two aspects of this new Pestkordon are troubling.

First, there’s the striking contrast between the modern world we claim to live in and the world we make when we are in the throes of plague hysteria. We laugh at the notion of borders when it comes to Facebook and rue the government of China for enforcing them when it comes to internet availability for its citizens. But when faced with danger – or, more to the point, when a minor threat evokes fear – we want to shut the borders.

Second, shutting borders or establishing sanitary cordons is worrisome because it is antiquated thinking. Germs have always been travelers. Witness cholera, AIDS, SARS, the 2009 H1N1 flu or just garden-variety flu. They are all transoceanic. That germs can now travel faster than ever makes them just like everything else in the world.

Successful sanitary cordons were usually defenses that shut disease into a community, not out. The English village of Eyam was said to have kept the Great Plague of 1665 from spreading to other parts of Derbyshire, for instance, by shutting itself off once some village residents fell sick. In 1900, San Francisco was partially successful at corralling plague inside its Chinatown for some weeks.

But cordons more often appear to work only because the danger is over ‒ as with Charles VI’s border. They may be of limited effectiveness locally. In the bigger picture, they may be closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, as with this August’s cordon in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Sanitary cordons are constructed along political boundaries instead of the more pertinent geography of a virus’s spread. And, as CDC official Martin Cetron has asserted, travel is a “humanitarian bridge” to move personnel and supplies to affected areas.

The new Pestkordon won’t be effective. SARS taught us that back in 2003 when at least 35 million travellers or would-be passengers were screened with temperature sensors, but not one case of SARS was detected. Fever is too common and SARS was too rare, especially among people fit enough to travel. The costs, both monetarily and in terms of restricting the movement of necessary aid or supplies, can be great. Screening for a virus can play up to the old atavisms about foreignness and danger, and – in the case of Ebola – race.


People line up at an immigration booth next to a sign explaining the symptoms of Ebola at a bus terminal in Ciudad Juarez.


The world has also changed. The majority of the global population lives in cities, meaning some three billion human beings are within about 24 hours’ travel of most of the world’s other human beings. Goods are constantly in transit from one country to another. In today’s world, borders are permeable and the conceptual space they circumscribe – “the West” or “our homeland” is at best fluid.

That border control is often about something other than protecting the public is perfectly evident in what CNN is calling the “Ebolification of immigration reform”. Republican senatorial candidate Scott Brown and Senator Rand Paul are citing Ebola as a reason to close the US border – with Mexico. These men know quite well that a West African virus isn’t going to be common among Central Americans. Still, they can look for votes by demanding border closing. Painting the US as vulnerable and claiming that dark-skinned people are bringing us their germs remains, it seems, a popular move. Indeed, in the past few days we’ve seen both Democrats and Republicans use the “getting tough on Ebola” strategy, presumably as a way to win votes.

The Ebola outbreak will end, although there will likely be more cases in the US and many, many more in West Africa before it does. The West needs to help affected countries contain the epidemic and treat the infected. But, the wealthy world also needs to maintain funding and enthusiasm for undramatic but indispensable measures, like contact tracing, that can halt the spread of an outbreak in its early days. Long-term solutions, like establishing permanent public health infrastructure and programming to deal with illness as it arises, are also critical.

The question is whether we can summon the resolve to create and implement sound public health measures both at home and in Africa so as to limit the outbreak’s effects – or if Ebola’s victims are going to be turned into straw men serving the aims of those who capitalise on Americans’ fears.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation.


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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.