Chris Kissling and John Tiffin
5th December 2005
New Zealanders are hunkering down under the threat of a likely viral pandemic, the likes of which hasn’t been since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic killed more people than the First World War.
In considering the risks, we have become increasingly aware of the influence of transport. The efficient mass transport systems that make possible globalisation and world trade are also the means of distribution for disease. Today’s jumbo jets and high speed rail and road links can spread flu far more efficiently than the old galleons transported bubonic plague from Asia to Europe.
One strategy for dealing with avian flu is to restrict transport. The New Zealand government is prepared to close ports of entry. Transport between different regions in New Zealand will be limited. Schools and universities will close. Congregating in large numbers for entertainment and sports will be banned. Who will be willing to scrum and ruck in a game of rugby? We will be encouraged to stay at home, even if we are perfectly well.
This state of affairs will last for one to two months in the first wave of the pandemic. How will we cope with being housebound for this length of time? How do we get food? What about work? What if we get sick? Take into account that over a period of some six months there could be two further waves. How will we cope without using the car?
One answer is to use technology creatively – to go beyond polyphonic ring tones and audio play-lists into territory that makes a real difference to our lives. Much of the technology around us today is gadgetry for the sake of having something new. If it turns out that the chips are indeed down, then we need to make full use of our technological inventiveness.
Instead of taking ourselves to a surgery full of sick and sneezing people, we should be able to use the telephone. Tele-medicine is already used in situations where doctors cannot attend, due to the distances involved or the affects of a natural disaster. Doctors diagnose and prescribe treatment by using telecommunications. We could use the new generation of mobile phones that take pictures to show a doctor what the problem is. They could then filter through the serious cases that need hands-on treatment.
Instead of going to the shopping mall, we could use the phone or the Internet to have things delivered to the door, or a safe distance from it. Travelling to work could be replaced by tele-working – if businesses are sufficiently prepared. We already spend much of our time at work on the Internet or on the phone or on a computer and we could just as easily be doing this at home.
The advances in technology also provide opportunities for tele-schooling. Instead of children being housebound, there should be a way for children to log on to an Internet site for alternative lessons. Some hitches would be inevitable, depending on access and the continuity of the web content, but it would be better than having children idle or running amok.
In theory we have the means to link students and teachers very effectively – far better than in the 1947 poliomyelitis epidemic, when the only telecommunication was correspondence school by radio. Students might even be persuaded to teach their teachers how to make use of text messaging and iPods to keep the work going.
Tele-medicine, tele-shopping, tele-working and tele-schooling are all perfectly feasible with current telecommunications technology. They already exist in New Zealand in some form. However, it will take time to organise them for the kind of emergency that avian flu threatens. How much time do we have? All we can be sure of is that one day a major emergency, like an earthquake or a tsunami or a pandemic, will hit New Zealand. Having sound tele-services to fall back on makes sense.
John Tiffin is Professor Emeritus of Communications Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and Christopher Kissling is Professor of Transport Studies at Lincoln University. They are jointly researching a book on transport, communications and globalisation.