Nothing like the possibility of a pandemic to excite the media on a slow long weekend. And as always the origins of the virus are carefully stressed. These things never originate in developed countries, where people wash their hands, but in Third World countries.

And how lucky is Kevin Rudd? As if an imported economic crisis wasn’t enough, now there’s a looming pandemic to wither those much-touted “green shoots” of recovery everyone has been searching for, not to mention further encourage protectionism and anti-immigration sentiment. Another episode like SARS will keep the global economy comatose for a while longer, especially if it reaches those few places where economic growth isn’t now a distant memory.

The aviation industry will be sitting with its collective head in its hands (there’s an image) wondering when the bad news will end. SARS inflicted massive damage on airlines and this pig-bird-human thing could do so as well. Still, on the upside, that will curb some of the most damaging carbon emissions from a sector that pays virtually no tax on its fuel use. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for a mob like Qantas who have trashed their brand and can’t even make a buck as part of the simplest heavily-regulated oligopoly.

But for the Government, it’s all good news. It is relying heavily on the Made In The USA tag on the recession to ward off any criticism of its economic performance. Blaming foreigners is better than blaming the previous Government, since the passage of time wipes away the latter excuse, but continuing shocks caused by greedy Wall St bankers and, now, a foreign-sourced pandemic, leave the Government blameless.

Yes, I’m being terribly cynical. No, of course, no Government representative would say or perhaps even think that, and most assuredly they feel very great concern about the disease both in its tragic impact offshore and its potential impact here.

Australia has a very strong health system and we’re well-prepared but we’re not immune to this threat from overseas.

Sound familiar?

Nick Cohen had an intriguing article in The Guardian on the weekend. I’ve mostly given up on Grauniad as, like The Australian, its take on issues can usually be reliably predicted prior to reading, but Cohen considered the likely refugee problems arising for the United Kingdom if, as many an informed and no-so informed commentator suggests, Pakistan’s collapse accelerates.

Such a collapse would, it’s fair to say, dramatically accelerate the flow of asylum seekers to Australia as well, and not just a few hundred in boats, but in significantly greater numbers through our airports. We’re already awaiting a surge of refugees from the conflict in Sri Lanka where, curiously, Tamils are demanding the ceasefire they never offered or sought when they thought they were winning. A civil war in Pakistan would pose far greater problems of refugee policy for the Government as it tried to work out how to handle the desire of middle-class Pakistanis to escape the chaos and violence in their own country. Given the Taliban’s misogyny, approximately half the population of Pakistan might face persecution and thereby qualify as refugees.

That might make for an altogether more serious refugee debate than we endured last time around. It’s one thing to demonise and dehumanise Afghans and Iraqis. But educated, cricket-playing Pakistanis, especially when they don’t arrive in boats? That might mess with Australians’ heads.

Peter Fray

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