In between reports from CNN of Paris Hilton's impending subtopian incarceration (in a section of Los Angeles' Century Regional Detention Center reserved for celebrities, public officials, police officers and other high-profile inmates, in a cell shared with a “reckless driver”)‚ and Lindsay Lohan's upcoming 21st birthday bacchanalia (in Las Vegas, right after spending 30 days at the celebrity architecture du jour — the rehab center), we heard reports of the jet-setting TB-infected Atlanta lawyer quarantined in Denver (an accidental celebrity in a rehab center of a different kind, as it were), flown there yesterday with an escort of federal marshals.
His flight manifest immediately piqued our interest. It's a doozy.
News reports tell us that after it was discovered that he had been infected with tuberculosis and advised not to travel, Andrew Speaker took a flight anyway for his wedding and honeymoon, first to Paris and then to Greece, presumably taking sidetrips here and there. After Greece, Speaker took another flight to Rome. There, he received a phone call telling him that further tests have revealed that his TB was of an extremely dangerous form. Now placed on the US no-fly list, he decided to cirumvent this restriction on his movement by flying to Montreal via Prague — in a confined space(!) for over 8 hours(!) with other people(!) within close transmission range! From Canada, he then crossed the border back to the U.S. by car. The CDC was frantically trying to get in touch with Speaker during this time. Upon learning that he was back in the country and en route to New York, they instructed him to check himself into a hospital there.
(We want to mention that he was phoned by one Dr. Martin S. Cetron, who as the director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, should definitely be interviewed.)
His travels were not yet over. After being quarantined for three days in New York, he was put on a flight — this time on a CDC-operated plane with masked passengers and crew — to Atlanta where he was detained under a federal health order, making him the first patient to be placed in forced isolation in more than 40 years. And yesterday, as previously mentioned, he was flown yet again to Denver. Whether this is the last leg of his Infection Tour of 2007, we don't know.
As dizzying as this sounds, one only needs to imagine health officers tracking down the passengers and crew, their connecting flights (if any) and their connecting flights afterwards (if any), and to their drive home with family and friends, to hotels and restaurants, and their countless passings through crowded public spaces, to realize that there's a lot to trace and retrace still.
For a cartographer, it must sound absolutely spine tingling. It's like mapping out the initial migration of the 1918 flu pandemic from Kansas to the trenches of World War I and then to the rest of the world; or plotting the route taken by the HIV virus from its incubation chamber in the rain forests of Congo and its journey up and down the Kinshasa Highway (a.k.a. AIDS Highway) before bursting out of Africa.
In what must have been some amazing synchronicity, Critical Spatial Practice reminded us yesterday about Terminal Air by Trevor Paglen and the Institute for Applied Autonomy.
Spatialized as a CIA office-cum-travel agency in Langley, Virginia, from where the Extraordinary Rendition Program is presumably coordinated, the project explores the “complex interconnections between government agencies and private contractors involved with the United States Central Intelligence Agency's extraordinary rendition program. Since the mid-90’s, the CIA has operated the extraordinary rendition program, in which suspected terrorists captured in Western nations are transported to secret locations for torture and interrogation. A thoroughly modern enterprise, the extraordinary rendition program is largely carried out using leased equipment and private contractors. These private charter planes often use civilian airports for refueling, making their movements subject to public record and visible to anyone who knows which tail numbers to look for.”
In the future Ebola-SARS-smallpox-Avian flu scourge, rendition flights for the terminally ill will be coordinated in a CDC/WHO office-cum-travel agency and carried out using remotely operated private charter planes departing from little known and abandoned airports, stopping for refueling at major international airports, where they sit on the tarmac like ticking biological time bombs.
“High over the beautiful countryside, passenger jets crisscrossed the sky, leaving white contrails behind them,” writes Richard Preston in The Hot Zone, this after recounting, in gory details, the progression of the Ebola-like Marburg virus on a man in central Africa (in a waiting room in a Nairobi hospital, we read, his internal organs failed, and he “bleeds out” from every orifice).
The image of contrails crisscossing overhead, stitching distant places together, is an apt premonition of what comes later in the book — that of an outbreak of Ebola among a population of monkeys halfway around the world in Reston, Virginia, outside of Washington, DC, imported there on those white contrailed airplanes, and about to break out into the general population.
Our pustuled and hemorrhaging cargo will similarly pass over enchanting landscapes, leaving vaporous tracings for Ebola enthusiasts to track, eventually finding its way to highly specialized medical treatment centers, which from the outside look like typical suburban houses with picket fences and generic landscaping but are actually top secret Biosafety Level 4 labs.
In any case, there are other things of particular spatial interest to us.
There's his quarantine room, for instance, an isolation chamber with its own independent ventilation system, irradiated with ultraviolet lights, and where any normal conversation probably gets droned out by the beeps and whirrings of machinery, the technical mutterings of nurses and doctors, and benedictions from the worried. Or so we imagined. Who designs these rooms, one wonders. Are there any elements engineered purely out of aesthetics, surpassing any functional concerns, or is the former inherent in the latter? Is there a simulation epidemic chamber where they get tested, where one could inspect for leaks as one would assess a home inside an earthquake simulation hangar?
And there's that liminal space separating the patient from the outside world, that semi-impervious partition for preparation and decontamination. It's a zone of waiting, where one is possibly compelled to pray — Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me — while wondering what the cafeteria is offering for lunch today.
Since we've obviously gone off in the fetid deep end, we'll mention one last thing: Wikipedia describes Reston, Virginia as “an internationally known planned community that revolutionized post-World War II concepts of land use and residential/corporate development in American suburbia.” And although the city was “planned before the term New Urbanism entered into mainstream use, in many ways it follows new urbanism guidelines.”
One can only therefore wonder here whether the Ebola outbreak represents a form of critique of New Urbanism and corporate landscapes, the same way AIDS, as Preston remarks, was an immuno-response by the earth to the human species creeping deeper and deeper into the jungle, clear cutting everything in sight for agriculture, diamonds and gold.
To put it in another way, urban planning can only be considered successful if it can spatially repel Nature's WMDs.