Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Keep Calm and Carry On | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Saudi medical staff leave the emergency department at a hospital in the center of the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 8, 2014.(AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

The more people there are, the more problems they have. We live in a time of peak population saturation; the land is full of people wherever you go. According to estimates, the world population broke the 1 billion mark in 1804. In the 20th century that number more than doubled: in 1927, the global population stood at more than 2 billion, and in 2012 that figure stood at 7 billion. And here we are now in 2014.

This huge population explosion means fighting for resources, whether we are talking about food, water or energy. It means justifying these battles in the name of religion, nationalism or indeed the human race. It is this fight for the survival of the human race that raises the greatest concern, particularly amid all the talk about the various epidemics that have swept the globe in recent years. At first all the talk was about swine flu, but now the greatest concern in the Middle East is the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus.

The camel is the symbol of the desert and the greatest friend to those Arabs who live in this harsh climate, but there are those who accuse the camel of spreading the coronavirus, including the head of the Saudi Society for Internal Medicine and professor of internal and infectious medicine at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University, Dr. Tareq Madani. However, others such as Saudi Deputy Minister of Public Health Dr. Ziad Memish deny that the camel is the main source of the coronavirus. Other senior Saudi officials are taking a step back from the issue, saying that, regardless of where the virus originated, it is under control and there is no need to panic.

Over the past decades, the world moved from panic over SARS to the bird flu scare. Before this, there was the panic over Mad Cow Disease, and today fears of the Ebola virus have returned to the fore once more. However, major epidemics that affect millions of people are just a normal part of human life. Our region has witnessed dozens of “plagues” and “epidemics” over its history, most famously the Plague of Emmaus that struck Palestine in the seventh century, killing many famous Companions of the Prophet. This plague had a massive impact, changing the political, social and economic realities in the region at the time.

Some historians argue that events such as this—whether plagues or wars—that killed millions of people were also the catalyst for scientific advancement and development. This is a view that may be severe but it cannot be denied. The Black Death swept the globe in the 14th century, which was a time of transition for humanity; a transition from one age to another, one general state of affairs to another. Estimates indicate that the death toll in Europe was between 45 and 50 percent of the overall population. The Black Death had a huge impact on population growth in Europe, as well as on its politics and society.

The Plague of Basra in 1773 had an immeasurable effect on Iraq, as well as on the entire region, with an estimated death toll of 1 million. This led to the destruction of the city of Basra and its once-mighty trade, in addition to wiping out an estimated one third of what is now Kuwait. In 1918, an epidemic in the Najd region wiped out thousands of people in what is known in Arabic as Sana Al-Rahma, or the Year of Mercy.

But isn’t it also true that these epidemics led to important medical breakthroughs? Every time such an epidemic raises its ugly head, it is a race between medicine and the disease. Were it not for these diseases, the world population might be twice what it is today. The human fear of plague is ancient, arising from a kind of intrinsic human memory—but life must go on.