The next time you board a flight, check out the space between you and the passengers in front and behind. In tourist class this “seat pitch” is likely to be somewhere between 0.75 and 0.85 meters. Then look to your left and right. You’ll find you’re even closer to those either side of you – between 0.4 and 0.5 meters, depending on which airline and where it’s flying.
In the light of the current global public health drama being played out over the coronavirus 2019-nCoV, this unwelcome proximity has consequences rather more serious than squabbles over inconsiderately raked seat backs and “shared” armrests. It comes down to the importance of what the World Health Organization, in its advice on how to avoid contracting the new virus, calls “social distancing.”
Like all respiratory diseases, 2019-nCoV jumps most efficiently from human to human in the small droplets projected by coughs and sneezes. Too close, and you’ll breathe in the virus. You should, says the WHO, “maintain at least 1-meter distance between yourself and other people.”
Good luck with that on an aircraft.
It’s thought that 2019-nCoV, like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) before it, originated in bats and jumped to humans via another intermediary animal. In SARS, which also originated in China, the culprit was the civet cat, consumed as a delicacy. MERS found us via the camel. The pangolin, an anteater prized in China for the supposed medicinal properties of its scales and found illegally in markets such as the one in Wuhan, is the latest suspect in the current epidemic.
But pangolin, camels and civet cats don’t fly. Human beings do, however, and, as more and more of the world’s population gains access to the benefits of middle-class affluence, are set to do so in ever increasing numbers. Annual passenger numbers shot up from about 1.5 billion in 1998 to 4 billion in 2018, and are predicted to continue increasing at 3.5 percent a year, reaching 8 billion by 2037.
As the latest epidemic is demonstrating vividly, whether its 2019-nCoV or the next virus, the true vector is not an animal but the aircraft.
As scientists scramble to develop a vaccine, 2019-nCoV may or may not yet be controlled – the jury is still out on the future of a virus that, as of February 10, infected about 43,000 people and, having claimed over 1,000 lives, has now killed more people than SARS. What is certain, however, and illustrated graphically by the eruption of cases in locations as far apart as a French ski resort and a business conference in Singapore, is that without the assistance of air travel, 2019-nCoV would have been extremely unlikely even to have left Wuhan.
Human mobility has been the root cause of all the pandemics that have threatened us in the past. Take the Black Death, aka the Plague, which in the 14th century claimed as many as 400 million lives, including half the population of Europe. This traveled along the Silk Road trade routes before embarking on ships in the Crimea and spreading, via fleas and the black rats that carried them, to every port in the Mediterranean and beyond.
The Middle East was struck particularly hard, through ports such as Alexandria, connected to Europe through Constantinople, a clearing house for goods and diseases. From the coastal regions of Egypt, the plague spread deep into Arabia along traditional overland trading routes. Mecca, Mosul and Baghdad had all become infected by 1349.
The next truly global pandemic was linked to another development in human travel – the vast mobilization of soldiers for the First World War, which saw two million young Americans packed first into training camps and then into troop ships bound for Europe.
With them came influenza, in the shape of an H1N1 virus of bird origin that had spread like wildfire in the overcrowded camps in the US. The resulting 1918-1919 pandemic infected a third of the world’s population and, claiming an estimated 50 million lives, killed far more people than all the bombs and bullets of four years of war.
These two pandemics were the result of what epidemiologists call “human mobility networks” and there is no doubt that the next one will be too. Last year a report by the WHO’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board concluded bleakly that the world was not prepared for the “very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5 percent of the world’s economy.”
We can take all the protective measures the WHO would like us to – wear masks, wash our hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based gel, maintain “social distancing” and so on – but the single most effective defense we have against the next pandemic would be to ground every aircraft.
That, of course, is never going to happen. Air travel is an integrated component of the modern global economy and vital for countries such as the UAE – only this month Dubai international, which saw 86 million passengers passing through in 2019, celebrated its sixth year as the world’s busiest hub.
That leaves us confronting an uncomfortable reality. In the same way that we regard deaths on the road as an acceptable price to pay for the personal freedoms afforded by the car, so we are implicitly accepting that rapidly spread global contagions, with all the loss and suffering they entail, are an acceptable price to pay for the essentially unnecessary luxury that is air travel.
Whatever happens to 2019-nCoV, the next pandemic is coming – it is, many virologists agree, simply a matter of when, not if. When it does come, it will arrive via an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737 or any other airplane in fact, and only then will the true cost of human mobility become dreadfully apparent.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.