Friday, May 02, 2003

SARS, Quarantine and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Let us assume here that SARS is a contagious disease that can be identified as such by doctors, including ones screening people who arrive from foreign shores. Would it be proper for the government to quarantine such folks?
If the disease is a serious health hazard, quarantine by legal authorities would be proper. Why?
It is the proper task of government to secure citizens’ rights. If someone with a contagious disease chooses to mingle with others who aren’t aware of this person’s disease, this person is very likely about to inflict a serious health hazard on these innocent citizens who haven’t chosen to mingle with the diseased person. So, the authorities entrusted with the job of securing our rights then have the responsibility to keep such people out of circulation.
Of course, whether SARS is such a serious disease is not something I know for sure and so I must put the matter in hypothetical form. If the disease is serious—not merely someone with a bad sneeze who may transmit a slight cold to others with whom contact will be unavoidable—then if this person intends to mingle with others, this person will be intent on embarking on criminal behavior—on assaulting others with his or her disease. No one has the right to do that to other persons who haven’t been forewarned and who have no choice about remaining in the vicinity of the diseased person.
None of this deals fully with the SARS phenomenon. There are, to the best of my knowledge, many others who carry contagious disease other than SARS. Thousands of persons with, for example, influenza travel freely about the globe without anyone going into panic about it. And, yes, influenza can kill! Arguably, then, SARS is something of a media driven scare, not a real serious hazard, compared to others afoot in various parts of the world.
The phenomenon reminds me of the time when thousands of people canceled trips to Europe after the USA bombed Libya back in April 1986 and there was fear of terrorism because of the bombing. One clever economist did some calculations and found that by remaining home, the chances for serious injury and even death for those who canceled their trips increased because of traffic hazards they would face when driving around on US soil. In contrast, flying to Europe and taking a train or a tour bus to various parts would have meant minimal danger to the tourists. No one, to my knowledge, has done a follow-up study on just how many of those who stayed away from Europe met with traffic mishaps. But the initial calculations by the economist seemed right.
In the present SARS scare thousands of people are foregoing vacations in China, Hong Kong, Toronto and other places where SARS has made its appearance. Given the relatively small numbers of those who have been felled by SARS, and given the statistical probability of meeting with traffic mishaps, it seems to me clear enough that this media driven and highly selective scare is once again leading to some unrecorded disasters.
Not much can be done about it, of course. When people get scared, however unreasonable their fear may well be, they will take measures to protect themselves. However, their protection may lead to worse things than what they feared in the first place.
It would be nice, under the circumstances, if the media—primarily news organizations—would report the comparative hazards stemming from SARS versus from other diseases and from the protective measures people are taking to avoid SARS. It should not be necessary for ordinary citizens, who rely so much on news organizations to inform them about what’s what, to become experts in this area. They should, instead, enjoy the services of their news reporters who should, in turn, dig deeper than superficial data that provides little more than grounds for panic rather than information that can help us make intelligent decisions. (For some official, government provided information on SARS, visit

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