Full Circle

Life over the past few months has been busy – very busy. Between running a long-term experiment, commuting back and forth across a country (albeit a small one), and attending a conference in Ireland, I have pretty much kept my nose to the grindstone, with blinders firmly attached against all distractions from the real world. But a few small titbits of world news have broken through my defences.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a BBC World Service addict. One of my favourite programs is “From our own Correspondent”, in which journalists, who must normally report objectively, give their personal feelings and experiences about a story that they are covering. Recently, two stories have really hit home for me. The first is from Nick Thorpe who offered comments about bird flu, and the second is from Chris Morris reporting on Europe’s identity crisis.

* * *

“Don’t demonize the wild birds” pleads Romanian ornithologist Eugen Petrescu in the BBC report, “Bird flu began among poultry in Southeast Asia almost certainly because of the way that people treat domesticated birds – cramped together in small cages.They infected the wild birds, which are now bringing the virus to Europe and Africa.Poultry are catching it and sooner or later so will humans.It’s coming full circle.”

Full circle indeed! Once I lifted my head from the sand I realized that almost everyone is paranoid about bird flu, and here I am working day in and day out with highly migratory birds caught from the wild. And to take things an ironic step further, I am working on their immune function.

The other day someone asked me what our research facility’s decontamination protocol was. Decontamination? I hadn’t even thought about it. Of course we are being more careful and visitor access to the aviaries has been restricted, but decontamination? I suppose the birds would be killed if there were an outbreak. Culling seems to be the solution everywhere else.

But what is the situation in infected areas in the wild?From Nick Thorpe’s BBC report it seems like the infected Danube delta has been completely closed off to visitors.In the coming year I hope to sample wild birds extensively, particularly during migration.But what happens if my primary research sites “catch” bird flu.Will access be restricted? Will my work be suspended?More importantly how will this affect the millions of wild birds that use these areas?How many of them will get sick and die?How many, if any, will be culled for our protection?What we humans tend to forget is that migratory birds are not only the vectors of the disease, they are also the innocent victims.

Eugen Petrescu hopes that scientists will try to engineer a vaccine for birds and not put all their effort into a vaccine for humans.This isn’t a bad idea.We humans don’t usually consider any perspective but our own.We worry about pandemics, we struggle to create human vaccines, and then we argue about who should have access to them.Why not at least try to vaccinate the chickens too and stop the transmission there?Lower the transmission among the birds and maybe save a few wild populations too.After all, the birds didn’t create bird flu – we are the most likely culprits.

We often forget that we are also animals, and that our own numbers are out of control. When a species overshoots its carrying capacity several factors come into play. There is normally a shortage of resources, be they food, fresh water or oil, and there is competition for those resources (i.e. wars). There is also disease. No one wants to suffer and no one wants to lose their livelihood, be it via the culling of enormous chicken farms, or the quiet loss of a few subsistence hens that mingled with wild birds in the backyard pond. And if bird flu or any other pandemic disease becomes a human to human pathogen no one will want to lose loved ones or their own lives. But if or when it comes full circle, we shouldn’t be surprised.

* * *

“Can values have borders, can we build barriers around them?” Chris Morris asks.

“I suppose people have tried to do just that throughout European history. Hadrian built his Wall, and many centuries later Stalin his Iron Curtain. The one to keep people out, the other to keep them in.”

“But it has never really been that simple …”

Just as the invasion of bird flu is a threat to Europe, some here feel as if they are fighting a different invasion – one of people.The EU is fiercely debating where its borders lie and who should be allowed to call themselves European.

My own background is rather diverse.My father is Swiss (a European but not in terms of the European Union).My mother is from Guyana, but she is Chinese by blood and had a rather British upbringing.I was born in Canada, but to complicate matters further I now live with my Panamanian husband in the Netherlands.

Confused?

So are many others and I am often asked, “What nationality do you identify with?”

I always answer Canadian.After all, I grew up there and aside from a few conflicts over (ironically) immigration laws, I have always felt fairly comfortable being Canadian.At times, I also feel Panamanian. Although I have spent much less time there, I married a Panamanian and from the beginning Panama stole my heart.

“But have you been to Switzerland?” people ask, “Do you feel Swiss?”

Despite holding a Swiss passport, I have never felt very Swiss.

“Do you feel Dutch after living nearly two years in the Netherlands?”

I do not.In fact I don’t feel European at all.

But how do the Europeans feel?

It seems to me that Europe can’t seem to decide who should be European and who should not.Fierce debates are raging about Turkey’s possible entrance into the EU, and about the flood of migrants from Africa and Asia trying to get into Europe.Debate is also raging about “integration problems” among the migrant communities who have already entered.

“It is rather different on the other side of the Atlantic,” says Chris Morris “Anyone can be an American. It does not matter where you are from.”

It’s true – at least once you get past immigration.And the same is true for Canada – at least it has always felt that way for me.

“There are Japanese Americans, Lithuanian Americans, Arab Americans and so on.” Chris continues, “In Europe we have British Asians, German Turks. But note the difference. In the US the emphasis is the other way around; they are not American Poles but Polish Americans. Americans first and foremost, implying a sense of belonging and of acceptance which Europe sometimes struggles to emulate.”

Growing up, I had friends of every shade and background. But I never even noticed. They were just my friends – simple. Of course, I can only speak for myself growing up in a large and multicultural city, perhaps, others had different experiences. But for me friends were friends, neighbors were neighbors – and yes there was a sense of belonging and acceptance for everyone, something that I have yet to feel in Europe. Even living in the tolerant Netherlands, I do not feel a sense of belonging or acceptance for everyone. But maybe tolerance is the problem, difference is tolerated – tolerated – but never accepted, and certainly never forgotten.

For me this is also a bit of a story about coming full circle. My husband and I came here as an admittedly idealistic pair who longed to live in what we believed to be a mature Europe, made wise by its history. We felt like teenagers hoping to come of age as we left the comparably immature glitz and glamour of the Americas. But now it seems like Europe is the one having the identity crises …

* * *

To sign off I must make one final comment …

It seems that in keeping my head in the sand I am decidedly human.To give a short example, ten minutes ago I heard that tropical storm Beta has been upgraded to a hurricane. Beta! This means that this year we have had so many tropical storms that we’ve run out of names! And yet in 1985 gas guzzling SUVs accounted for only 2 percent of new vehicle sales and today SUVs account for one in four new vehicles sold*.I scratch my sandy head …

* Note the stats are representative of the United States and were taken from Harper and Newsweek Magazines.

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