As if the war in Iraq weren’t enough, now we have some kind of weird killer bug on the loose. Between the two, a fair number of people have died. That’s war, pestilence, and death. Now all we need is a famine.

Okay, maybe it’s not actually the end of the world, but it’s understandable that plenty of people are scared out of their gourds. Until the recent media blitz of “stay calm” messages, things were starting to get a little weird. It’s disconcerting to see people in your grocery store wearing masks on their faces, and to hear stories of people avoiding Chinatown and other assorted nonsense.

Then again, it’s even more disconcerting to know they haven’t even figured out what causes SARS.

Where do all these scary super-bugs come from? Just following some of the major outbreak stories of the past decade or so, it seems a lot of these afflictions originate in countries known for difficult living conditions. SARS is only the latest in a chain of microscopic malcontents that includes West Nile virus, Ebola, AIDS, and various drug-resistant strains of old diseases we thought we’d cured.

We’ve known for a long time that when you put a lot of people together in a small space without access to adequate healthcare, nutrition, or clean water, disease is a natural result.

Clearly, it’s in everybody’s best interest to eliminate poor living conditions, no matter where they exist, and no matter what it costs or whose money is being spent to deal with the problem. Or not. It’s not really our problem if some family in South America lives next to an open sewer, or if the Russian prison system is essentially a state-run farm for drug-resistant strains of TB.

Then again, the next yet-to-be-discovered superbug that stows away on an international business flight might be something a little deadlier than a strange flu with a 4 per cent mortality rate. It might be another West Nile virus or a bad flu strain. Or it might be airborne Ebola. Whatever it might be, once it gets going, it probably won’t care how rich you are or what country you live in, even if it started in a poor, famine-ridden country.

Famine? With war, pestilence, and death, that’s all four—and it’s everybody’s problem.

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