The past few weeks have seen a spate of airline flights quarantined due to mass illnesses by passengers—sparking apocalyptic visions of a worldwide pandemic or viral plague coming to an airport near you.
The most high-profile grounding was on Sept. 5, when a flight from Dubai to JFK Airport supposedly had 100 people fall ill with what was deemed flu-like symptoms.
Emirates flight crew being loaded into Ambulances at JFK Airport after about 100 become ill with temperatures over 100 degrees on flight from Dubai. Aircraft remains quarantined. pic.twitter.com/5zXrgGpBu3
— Sam Sweeney (@SweeneyABC) September 5, 2018
The next day, two flights going into Philadelphia, one from Munich and the other from Paris, were held with their passengers not allowed to leave due to respiratory sickness and flu-like symptoms.
The seeming pandemic didn’t end there, as on Monday, Sept. 10, passengers on a Virgin Australia flight from Melbourne to Auckland reported the same flu-like symptoms, causing it to be quarantined.
Four flights, from four places, all full of passengers with similar respiratory symptoms. Is it an easily explainable spike in illnesses in confined spaces or harbingers of a looming vomit apocalypse?
Because any incident of mass illness can quickly be blown out of proportion by both conspiracy theorists and click-hungry media outlets, it’s important to examine exactly what’s happening here, and whether or not it’s unusual.
The Dubai-to-JFK grounding got outsized public attention because of the high number of passengers who got sick (or maybe because Vanilla Ice was on the plane), but the initial report that 100 people were sick was quickly corrected to 19 people being sick. 11 were hospitalized, and all either had a cold or the flu.
The other flights likewise had about a dozen sick passengers each, all with colds or mild flu, with their entire manifests cleared to go home within a day.
Mass sickness incidents on planes are fairly rare—but it’s really easy to contract an illness on an airplane, especially during flu season.
An early-2018 study (funded in part by Boeing) found that healthy passengers who sit within one row of a person with a respiratory illness have an 80 percent chance of getting sick themselves.
But these illnesses usually take days or more to manifest. You might get sick if you sit next to a sick person on a flight, but you won’t start showing symptoms while you’re next to them.
It’s here that the conspiracy theory community got to work connecting what was “really” happening with these four flights, and both they came to the one conclusion—they were full of people returning home from the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
This year’s hajj ended on Aug. 29 and happened to coincide with both a flu outbreak and multiple cases of Middle Eastern respiratory virus (MERS) in Saudi Arabia.
The hajj attracts well over 1.5 million people every year to Mecca, and a flu outbreak in such crowded quarters is bound to spread quickly and globally. One study printed in the Journal of Travel Medicine found at least 25,000 flu cases among pilgrims every year, with more cases resulting from contacts sick people have after they leave Mecca.
3rd plane with passengers exhibiting flu like symptoms all in transit from #Hajj – Philadelphia-Bound American Airlines Passengers Quarantined After Showing Flu-Like Symptoms, Customs Officials Say https://t.co/9HWpryipfv via @nbcphiladelphia
— Frances Townsend (@FranTownsend) September 6, 2018
All four flights had groups of pilgrims taking different itineraries to return from Mecca, some having picked up bugs. It’s likely that many other passengers reported as sick just happened to be sick as well.
This seems like a fairly reasonable explanation for the sudden onset of flu-like symptoms on worldwide flights, and none of the patients in question tested positive for MERS. But the conspiracy community wanted to go deeper, and find a sinister explanation—even if that meant making it up.
And so a pinned post on conspiracy hotbed r/conspiracy rhetorically asked “WTH is going on with this airport plague?” lumping in several unrelated cholera cases, while insinuating that the whole thing was a plot to force people to get flu shots and that the media was underplaying how bad the pandemic really was to avoid offending Muslims.
Even more inflammatory was a series of tweets from alt-right linked activist and noted foe of Islam Laura Loomer.
Loomer, who was banned from both Lyft and Uber for demanding a non-Muslim driver, took the occasion of the Philadelphia scares to toss out a conspiracy theory that hajj returnees were intentionally “spreading mass disease via American airplanes/ airports” as some form of “biological warfare.”
Beyond that, the whole thing was timed to the anniversary of the September 11th attacks because there are “no such thing as coincidences.”
Nothing Loomer claimed had any basis in fact. This was not a spreading of mass disease by planes full of sick terrorists, it was a few people with common bugs who were quickly sent on their way.
Nor was it even plausible that would-be terrorists would do any damage to the United States giving a few people mild flu and sending them off into the wild. That’s now how pandemics work.
But Loomer has a large Twitter following, so her tweets got thousands of shares, with her mentions quickly filling up with conspiratorial nonsense, false claims, and bizarre accusations.
Laura, I've read at another site that 12 flights arrived in the U.S. with similar symptoms. If the C.D.C. isn't releasing or properly explaining the threat, can you get the truth from flight attendants and/or pilots?
— Cee Cee (@ConstanceSee) September 10, 2018
A medical fact when Mexicans flooded our borders they brought back TB it was irradiated in the US but because of their living condition it has spread all over the US. You can check with any medical research they will say the same. I learned it in medical school.
— Sharon Lovell Buy America Made In America (@SharonLovell9) September 10, 2018
— Doriano Carta (@Paisano) September 10, 2018
Do you have anything genuine to say about the poor Moslems whom the Jews blamed all their terrorists acts on, including 9/11 and 7/7?
Read William Engdahl's book "The Lost Hegemon" and learn why Jews demonize Moslems and carryout terror in their name.
— Alex Baroudi (@AlexBaroudi8) September 11, 2018
None of this was true.
Loomer’s claim that the mainstream media was keeping it secret was also bogus, as a slew of major media companies covered the connection between the quarantines and hajj pilgrims; including the New York Times, NBC, Reuters, and USA Today.
Finally, while there’s general concern that the Trump administration would struggle to contain a pandemic due to sweeping budget cuts and staffing issues at the CDC, the agency carried out its duties well.
It alerted local hospitals and labs, crosschecked global databases, isolated the planes when they landed, and stopped anyone from re-entering the general population without being fully screened and treated.
Ultimately, these incidents made news because of pop culture fantasies of fast-spreading diseases killing millions while government agencies struggle with bureaucracy. But nothing like that was ever possible here, and proper precautions were taken to prevent anything unusual from taking place.
But sometimes when everything works out right, people don’t want to accept that truth.