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Before Shutting Down SXSW and Everything Else, Maybe Think

Singapore and Vietnam used infrared scanners to take passengers' temperatures before boarding planes during the 2003 SARS epidemic.EXPAND
Singapore and Vietnam used infrared scanners to take passengers' temperatures before boarding planes during the 2003 SARS epidemic.
cody.pope / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday when I wrote this thing, the list of entities and people pulling out of SXSW because of coronavirus, according to the Austin American-Statesman, included Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Intel, Mashable, the Global Alternative Food Awards and a trade show for Chinese companies called China Gathering.

As for China Gathering, please don’t take this bigotedly. But, yeah. One would foresee sparse attendance, not only at China Gathering itself but in the surrounding blocks. Maybe this was the better part of valor.

As for everybody else, what’s the plan? No more public events at all? Or will only certain kinds of events be deep-sixed at the last minute? No, listen, please, I’m not casting aspersions. I genuinely wonder how this plays out.

At the American Airlines Center in Dallas alone, I count 44 major public events during the balance of the year. All closed? If not, which ones? Disney on Ice? Bon Jovi? Jurassic World Live? Will there be a full house for Puddle of Mudd but crickets for Jimmy Buffett? Mavericks and Stars both in the playoffs? Check.

What about religious meetings? In the next two months, the Texas Southern Baptist Convention is scheduled to host three convention-like gatherings — a “Heart of the Child” conference March 6-7 in Fort Worth, the Southern Baptists of Texas general convention in Grapevine on March 11 and a “Role of the Pastor” conference April 23 in Grapevine. Should those all be shuttered?

I don’t know the answer, but it seems like times of emergency are exactly when we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about what we’re doing.

Pandemics are scary. In the face of a looming threat, the impulse to withdraw and shelter is human. But the reality is that our lives are densely interwoven. Panicky withdrawal takes its own toll, and I’m not just talking about Bon Jovi.

For example, I’m sure most of us would think it makes immediate good sense to shut down airline flights to and from centers of infection. That way the germs can’t get out, right? But that’s probably wrong and not really how the world works.

Places where disease is rampant urgently require quick and effective international intervention, especially if the public infrastructure there is weak or lacking. Cutting off access to the outside world only increases the likelihood that a disease hot spot will fester and turn into a wider epidemic, and, once that happens, the disease is getting out anyway, one way or another.

In 2018, the Harvard Public Health Review published an article looking back at this century’s international epidemics, especially at Ebola in 2014, with a particular eye to the effect of commercial airline service blackouts. The authors, Chelsea Ferrell and Pulkit Agarwal of Tufts University, came to a chilling conclusion.

During Ebola, only two airlines continued service to the affected areas in West Africa, each citing a moral mandate to continue flights. The Harvard Public Health article said: “In the end, at least six major international air carriers imposed travel bans on flights into affected countries (and some to countries as distant from the crisis as Kenya!) If not for Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc’s moral mandates and continued service, these bans could have turned Ebola into a worldwide pandemic."   

How could canceling flights into and out of an area fan the flames of a local epidemic into a global pandemic? The authors said their study confirmed other earlier findings that “these flight bans were not only ineffective in controlling the spread of disease but, at times, kept vital humanitarian assistance from reaching the epidemic, effectively providing conditions for the outbreak to grow.”

And what does that have to do with SXSW? As important as Austin’s annual cultural gathering has become to the people who attend, SXSW obviously is not a matter of life and death. But it is a matter of life, as are those Baptist conventions to the people who attend them.

I know people who think they need to see Jimmy Buffett in person once every few years in order to keep going. Yes, that does seem like a fragile thread to me, too, but at a certain point it’s all fragile threads, is it not? And all of our fragile threads are interwoven.

The Harvard article, by the way, certainly did not say people should just jump on a plane to Sierra Leone in the middle of an Ebola epidemic and not worry about it. The authors talked instead abut the extraordinary cooperative efforts that finally contained Ebola and saved the world from something like the Black Death in the 14th century.

The effort in Nigeria alone offers the rest of the world a lesson in how to deal with this kind of threat. The Nigerian response to Ebola, the authors said, involved “all the important stakeholders including the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and airline operators (foreign and domestic).

“Others included ground handling agencies, security agencies like the Nigerian Air Force, Nigerian Police and the Directorate of State Security Services, Nigeria Immigration Service and Nigeria Customs and Excise and tourism agencies like the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) and other private tourism companies.

SXSW is a big deal to a lot of people. Should everybody stay home?
SXSW is a big deal to a lot of people. Should everybody stay home?
Marlon Giles / Creative Commons

“The process helped Nigeria in the analysis of existing gaps, mock exercises and in implementation of relevant public health emergency standard and recommended practices.”

Not to cast stones, but I haven’t really seen anything on that scale here yet. Have you? I did see the president’s press conference with the vice president, but it looks to me like we’ve got a long road ahead if we hope to catch up with Nigeria.

If there’s a larger point, it’s this: Pulling out of SXSW at the last minute is a symptom of people not knowing what the hell’s going on. It reflects people not wanting to die, all of which is human, understandable and inevitable.

But we do need also to reflect on the simple reality that we can’t pull out of everything. We can’t stop being connected. Being disconnected is every bit as dangerous and as deleterious as being connected the wrong way.

Here’s an easy way to see it. You say, “Oh, right, buddy. Why don’t you go connect yourself. Count me out.” You go home and disconnect. On the third day of that, you get a bad fever, a dry cough and a headache. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Reconnect.

Once you’re sick, you’re going to be down there in a heartbeat banging on the door at the ER. You had better hope that door isn’t locked with a sign over it saying, “Sorry, disconnected.”

There are ways to do this. The Harvard article points out that during the SARS epidemic in 2003, Singapore and Vietnam used cutting-edge technology to minimize risk on commercial aircraft, including infrared surveillance cameras and scanners capable of taking a potential passenger’s temperature before the passenger boards a plane. Maybe this is a great opportunity for SXSW to burnish its reputation as a global showcase for cutting-edge technology.

Please don’t think I’m standing here with my hands on my hips trying to be Mr. No-Need-To-Panic. I believe in panic. I think nature gave us panic for a reason. When my editor tells me in a story meeting I have to go cover the Baptist “Role of the Pastor” convention in Grapevine, don’t get between me and the fire escape. Or when I look in the mirror and see Sam Donaldson hair. Well, that’s just a case of shoot me.

It’s too bad we’re not getting more leadership from the White House. But, look, in 2014 when Nigeria was mounting a massive, coherent and effective campaign against Ebola, the country was under siege by the terrorist armies of Boko Haram and the president was a guy named Goodluck Jonathan, credibly accused of stealing more than $30 billion from Nigerian national coffers.

Is our situation worse than that? Please do not answer.

We do have to think this out for ourselves. We should be asking our own mayor here in Dallas what his plan is. How about some of those scanners like they had in Vietnam? Or an emergency-footing plan of coordinated effort like what Nigeria did?

We should be thinking about ways to keep doing what we need to do while minimizing our risk. It won’t work to try to shut everything down and hide in our holes. In fact, that will make things worse.

And I wasn’t going to SXSW anyway, so I’m cool on that score. I never could stand Jimmy Buffett. Not a Baptist. You know what the real danger is for me in a total collapse of social interaction? As long as I’ve got peanut butter, seed bread and a working Netflix connection, it sounds a little too much like nirvana.

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