Holding Back the Tides

04hajj-395Interesting times make for interesting posts, apparently. If you haven’t been following the flu blogosphere, MERS-CoV has been kicking up again in the Middle East (machine-translated gobbledygook). MERS-CoV is something that public health professionals are watching very closely for two reasons. First, our experience with SARS. While MERS-CoV is not SARS, that doesn’t mean that the 2003 outbreak can’t be learned from. Second, we’re concerned about where the outbreaks are taking place due to the upcoming religious pilgrimage in Mecca, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lots of people from all over the world crowded together, while an infectious agent floats (?) around, and then dispersing to the winds, potentially infecting their home populations. (One only needs to look at the importation of cases to the UK, France and Italy.)

Well, the flu blogosphere is in a bit of a tizzy right now over the most recent release of information from the Kingdom over cases. Apparently, there have been a few reports of hospitals asking people not to go to hospitals due to cases already in the hospitals and unannounced outbreaks. (Caution: more machine translation.) In a country that controls the media and information releases as strongly as the Kingdom, this is a HUGE deal.

The Saudi government has openly prosecuted bloggers and dissidents, maintains strict control over internet content, and in 2012 was listed by the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) as number 8 in the 10 Most Censored Countries. And just this week, KSA passed a law to combat cybercrime, which includes a broadly worded provision to outlaw `the dissemination of ideas that could affect public order or morality.’

The inimitable Mike Coston goes on later:

Whatever the truth is regarding these reports, the fact that they are appearing at all in mainstream Arabic media suggests growing concerns over MERS (and a loss of confidence in the MOH) by the public, and by the media.

I’ve talked about this before, when I was describing the internet rumor mill that surrounded the H7N9 cases in China, and wondered aloud if something similar would ever pop up in Saudi Arabia:

Now imagine the value that a rumor mill like Weibo could be in Saudi Arabia. How much better we all might be protected.

As we talked about yesterday, all it takes is one clever person with a smartphone and a social media account and that secrecy that the Kingdom is so famous for will be as useful as an ice cream cone stand there.

Bruce Schneier, when talking about the Snowden case, details a secondary problem to lies coupled with secrecy, not just the original problem, but something much more dreadful:

All of this denying and lying results in us not trusting anything the NSA says, anything the president says about the NSA, or anything companies say about their involvement with the NSA. We know secrecy corrupts, and we see that corruption. There’s simply no credibility, and — the real problem — no way for us to verify anything these people might say.

It’s a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to take root: no trust, assuming the worst, no way to verify the facts. Think JFK assassination theories. Think 9/11 conspiracies. Think UFOs. For all we know, the NSA might be spying on elected officials. Edward Snowden said that he had the ability to spy on anyone in the U.S., in real time, from his desk. His remarks were belittled, but it turns out he was right.

How will we learn to trust the Saudis again if they’re hiding this? How will the Saudis be able to trust the Kingdom? And while not all rumors are true, in today’s world, all it takes is one rumor to slip out and all hell could break loose. Trying to stop it? Like holding back the tides.

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