Thursday, April 26, 2012

News from the Black Holes

I learned a couple of interesting things about my country and its people this week.

The New York Times told me about interesting developments on Fogo Island, a small piece of Newfoundland sitting in the North Atlantic. It is an isolated place, geographically and historically; population 2,700 with little work since the cod fishery collapsed.

Zita Cobb, a local who made a name and money for herself as a corporate executive in the U.S., returned to Fogo and began putting thought and much money into reviving the island. She formed the Shorefast Foundation, which is trying to revitalize the economy with a variety of projects, including art studios and a five-star inn.

From the Muskoka Weekender I learned about one man's inspiring late-life campaign against illiteracy. Clarence Brazier, who died April 15 at age 105, was 93 before he learned to read. When he did, he became a powerful advocate for adult literacy, taking his inspirational message to many, especially young people.

He won several awards for his work, including the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award and the Canada Post Literacy Award.

Brazier worked bush and mine jobs in which it was easier to keep secret his inability to read and write. His wife Angela covered for him, writing and reading on his behalf.

Stories like these - which tell us who we are and how we live our lives - are becoming fewer. Outside the major population centres there are expanding black holes from which we hear or read little about people and their lives. News media coverage has shrunk as smaller budgets mean fewer news staff and increased focus on news close by and cheaper to cover. More and more news coverage is of government and politics because it is pretty much spoon-fed news, quick and easy to report.

Thankfully there are some news people around, certainly at the New York Times and Muskoka Weekender, still telling us important stories about people.

Government does not a nation make. Nations are created by people living their lives, and reporting their stories should be a priority of any news organization.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spring of Fear

It’s hard to go through April without recalling the worries of the Spring of Fear nine years ago. April 2003 was when we all feared that a new disease named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) would become a devastating pandemic.

SARS killed 800 people around the world, 44 in Canada, before disappearing in the autumn.  We all breathed easier, although medical experts still warn that there will be other serious outbreaks created by new or mutating existing bugs.

Since then, there has been an important developing change in how public health thinks about viral outbreaks. Nine years ago, public health reacted to SARS, as they had with previous influenza pandemics, attacking full force, eventually winning, and then going back to business as usual. Now, however, there are indicators that public health will do more to predict outbreaks and work to prevent them.

A major force behind the change is Dr. Nathan Wolfe of Stanford University and founder of Global Viral Forecasting, which specializes in early detection and control of epidemics. He also is author of The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age published late last year.

Viral outbreaks occur regularly, but the public only hears about, or at least becomes concerned about, the ones that break loose and spread worldwide, like SARS, HIV and the killer influenzas.
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Most outbreaks start with animal to human transmission. So Wolfe and his organization have taken to monitoring human-wild animal interfaces in Africa and Asia where people have close contact with bushmeat, or wild animals taken for food. They gather detailed information through field and lab work and data from social media, cell phone contact and other sources. They are trying to create a system that provides real-time information that will anticipate viral threats and block them before they spread.

Viral outbreaks spread as quickly as a 777 can fly from one continent to another. We live in one closely connected world and a deadly virus that gets loose, could quickly kill millions of us.

Developing an early warning system and turning public health’s thinking toward fighting possible outbreaks in advance is the best way to make sure killer viruses no longer get loose.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Lily of the Mohawks

So, the silliness has begun over the impending canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The Toronto Star stirred the pot in January with a story about the ‘damned Yankees’ trying to steal away a Canadian saint.
Kateri Tekakwitha
Tekakwitha was a Mohawk child who was four in 1660 when her mother, father and brother died in a smallpox outbreak that ravaged Iroquois settlements in what is now upstate New York. She also had smallpox but survived with severe facial scarring and partial blindness. She was taken in by relatives and later began to develop devotion to Christianity brought by Jesuit missionaries.
Many of the Iroquois tribes did not like the Jesuits or the new religion. Priests were killed, and people who followed their religion were marginalized and mocked.
Kateri was among some Mohawks who moved with Jesuits to a Christian settlement now called Kahnawake on Montreal’s south shore. She became known there for her piety, acts of penance and care of the sick. She died at only 24 and those at her bedside said that as she passed away, the smallpox scars on her face disappeared and she became beautiful to look at.
The Catholic Church has been investigating miracles associated with her for well over 100 years. In 1943, the Vatican declared her a possibility for sainthood and beatified her in 1980. In October, she will officially become the church’s first native North American saint.
The fuss over whether Kateri was American or Canadian has been going on for decades. It will intensify now with her elevation to sainthood. It’s totally ridiculous. She is neither an American, nor a Canadian saint. She is a saint of the Mohawks, who were a distinct nation long before the Europeans arrived, and still consider themselves a nation despite all the attempts to assimilate them.
Kateri Tekakwitha is an interesting story, whether you believe in saints and miracles or not. More on Tekakwitha and the Mohawks will be found in Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry, my latest book that will be published this fall by Dundurn Press.