Greetings from Riyadh Airport. Saudi Arabia is, well, different. And, moving on…
Here in Riyadh the government have been having to deal with mass panic over an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has taken the lives of over 70 victims. Typically MERS is associated with camels, and test results have just confirmed that the current outbreak has been driven by camel-based transmission.
As with many health scares, panic is built on unsubstantiated rumour. Some of the rumours here have been extravagant. According to today’s Arab Times, one hospital has been suspected of admitting 170 MERS cases when in fact it had admitted none. There were also rumours that its ER had shut down, even though it hadn’t.
Kids have been missing school and restaurants have been losing business, despite the fact that going to these places poses virtually no MERS risk, unless you meet somebody there with full blown pneumonia and then come into “close contact” with them. And trust me, in the extremely unlikely event you come into “close contact” with a stranger in a restaurant here (or anywhere else), catching MERS will be the least of your worries.
From what I hear though, you could encounter a camel in some Riyadh restaurants. Probably not in schools though.
The government are launching a website and SMS campaign seeking to debunk MERS pseudoscience and defuse the associated panic before things get out of hand.
But, funnily enough, mass panic is not always too damaging. According to one doctor:
Hospitals are empty because of these rumours, which is not a bad thing since residents have been advised to avoid large crowds.
Sounds good, but even that is over-cautious. Apparently, there have been no crowd-related MERS cases so far.
(And, just in case you were wondering, climate change is not to blame either.)
Next move for the government will be to develop an appropriate vaccine.
And then, no doubt, to launch a mass communication campaign to tell everyone that the vaccine is safe too.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.