Mark Harrison, author of ‘Contagion’, explores the complex and deep-seated anxieties which often accompany trade between nations

In the summer of 2008 I visited Seoul to give lectures at a symposium on medical humanities.  Having never visited South Korea before, I had little idea what to expect but I was surprised to find a country in turmoil.  Tens of thousands of people were taking to the streets of the capital Seoul every evening to protest against the recently elected president, Lee Myung-bak.  The cause, quite improbably, was the importation of American beef.

Two years previously, South Korea and other Asian countries had prohibited beef imports from the USA after reports of BSE in American cattle.  The announcement that the ban would soon be lifted was regarded warily by the president’s opponents and by the public at large, for Lee was alleged to have done a deal with the USA behind closed doors.  Many believed that he had yielded to pressure from the US government, with which he was hoping to secure a vital trade treaty.  Whatever the merits of the agreement economically, in political terms it was a disaster.  The president’s secrecy allowed opponents to make all manner of allegations, not the least of which was that he was prepared to risk public health for commercial gain.

The former head of the Hyundai engineering company, the ‘Bull-dozer’ had been elected on the basis of his promise to reform the public sector and take on South Korea’s powerful trade unions.  These objectives still had a great deal of support but those who opposed the reforms had been handed a cause which enabled them to build a broad-based coalition, united at least temporarily against a seemingly callous and devious act.

Here, in South Korea, I was living through events which I had hitherto only encountered as an historian.  Whilst researching my book Contagion, I had found innumerable cases in which the imperatives of trade were at odds with public health.  However, in most of these there was more to this confrontation than immediately met the eye.  Long-distance commerce has always aroused concerns about loss of sovereignty and cultural contamination and these fears have often been inseparable from those of infection from outside.  There are good reasons for this, for commerce has been the most important vehicle for the spread of infectious diseases over the past seven hundred years.  But the fear of contagion nearly always surpasses the actual risk and so it proved to be in the case of American beef.

As I pointed out to Korean friends and journalists, the risk of infection with BSE or vCJD was probably negligible.  But this mattered little in a situation which confrontation was becoming more heated by the day.  The demonstrations had acquired a momentum which seemed unstoppable and were provoking a reaction on a scale which had not been witnessed since the end of the dictatorship in 1987.  By this time it mattered little that the risk of infection was low, for the issue had become a proxy for numerous other grievances, many of long standing.  Apart from the unpopularity of the president’s reform agenda with the labour movement and opposition parties, the deal with the USA stirred old resentments against what many saw as American domination of their country.  It also crystallized new fears about globalization; about the destruction of domestic industries and the ability of richer and more powerful countries to dictate the terms of trade.  The prospect of contagion united all these disparate concerns and gave them a legitimacy and mass appeal which they would otherwise have lacked.  Trotskyists and militant trade unionists took to the streets in candle-lit vigils alongside Catholic priests and Buddhist nuns.

The mass protests in Seoul feature in one of the later chapters of Contagion.  As I hope readers will acknowledge, it is a case which tells us much about the complex and deep-seated anxieties which often accompany trade between nations.  Since at least the time of the Black Death, these fears have often been expressed in relation to infection.  Measures intended to lessen the risk of contagion, such as quarantines and sanitary embargoes, are consequently of great moment.  They are seen to preserve the integrity of borders and peoples, to protect domestic producers against the ravages of the market, and in some cases have even amounted to declarations of war.

This fascinating story is largely unknown and my initial reason for writing this book was to bring it to public attention.   But as I went further into the project, and especially after my visit to South Korea, I became aware that history had something important to contribute to present-day debates over trade and disease.  In our globalized world, fear of infection is perhaps more apparent than for some time, especially in the wake of pandemics such as SARS and influenza.  Much has undoubtedly changed since the starting point of my book, which is in the mid-fourteenth century, but I am struck powerfully by the continuities.  People still react to disease – or the threat of disease – in much the same ways.  Moreover, the abuse of sanitary regulations – which started as far back as the Renaissance – is as much a feature of the contemporary world as it was then.  My book argues that the threat of trade-borne disease has often been constructed or manipulated for economic and political gain and that this has negative consequences for our health as well as for commercial freedom and international relations.

In the ordinary course of events we are unaware of this unstable and potentially perilous state of affairs and I hope that my book will go some way to opening our sanitary controls to greater scrutiny.  In particular, I hope it will draw attention to the methods used to assess the risk of infection and the inadequacy of arrangements that are supposed to enforce sanitary standards and ensure commercial freedom.  Free trade is a pre-requisite for long-term stability and growth but many sanitary measures inhibit both.  My book therefore argues for equitable and effective sanitary regulation of the global market.

How Commerce Has Spread Disease
by Mark Harrison
ISBN 9780300123579
£25.00        Order Now

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