Apparently some people believe the Sentinelese have “no natural immunity” to “common pathogens” like the common cold, influenza, and measles. They fear a simple handshake could prove lethal to the Sentinelese people.
I’ve already discussed some of this in a previous post, “Deadly pathogens“. I’ll venture a few more comments:
1. I wonder if some of this isn’t driven by a culture expecting hermetically sealed and perfectly sterile, germ-free environments? Anything less is going to lead to another bubonic plague! (By contrast, see the hygiene hypothesis. For example, it’s debated whether the increase in asthma and hay fever might not be due to this phenomenon.)
2. It’s simply false the Sentinelese have “no natural immunity” to these “common pathogens”. Every normal human is born with an immune system. In fact, I’ve studied and love immunology, and I think our immune system is astounding in what it is and what it can do. In brief, we are each born with innate and adaptive immune system. That’s like having a standing defensive military that’s ready to respond to a threat at a moment’s notice (innate immune system) + being able to call up reserves and train new troops as needed (e.g. special ops) in order to meet the ever-changing tides and currents in warfare (adaptive immune system).
3. None of these diseases is going to kill anyone in (say) a single day. There’s an incubation period for every pathogen. It takes time for pathogens to infect us and multiply inside of us. During that time our immune systems would be battling the pathogens. If the worst should happen, and the pathogens multiply enough so they overwhelm our immune systems, then that’s when they’d start to pose a threat.
However, I find this quite unlikely with the common cold (e.g. rhinovirus) inasmuch as the rhinovirus is likely endemic in all human populations including the Sentinelese. The Sentinelese have likely already experienced the common cold. I’ve already discussed influenza and the measles in my “Deadly pathogens” post.
If a pathogen does overwhelm the Sentinelese’s immune system, and if people really cared, then people could easily get a supportive medical team to the island stat! All these “common pathogens” could be dealt with by a supportive medical team with basic and inexpensive medical supplies such as antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines, oxygen masks, and IV fluids. Again, that’s assuming their bodies can’t take care of the pathogens themselves. Isn’t saving their lives more of a priority than not contacting them if that’s what it came down to (e.g. a lost fisherman accidentally infecting the Sentinelese)?
4. Speaking of which, an objection is that we should leave the Sentinelese alone. Benign neglect is the best policy. That’s what the Indian government argues.
However, why is leaving the Sentinelese alone necessarily the most prudent course of action? This isn’t Star Trek and we don’t have a Prime Directive.
Depending on the situation, non-intervention could prove harmful too. Suppose we are in a position to help a drowning kid, but we ignore him. One could multiply examples.
In addition, it’s not as if the Sentinelese are unaware there are outsiders in the rest of the world. Prior to Chau, there were others who encountered the Sentinelese (e.g. two fishermen who died at their hands).
At some point, arguably in the near future, the Sentinelese will have to deal with the wider world. For example, there have already been tourists to other parts of the Andaman Islands. There have been fishermen sailing their waters. To be blunt, the Sentinelese can do it the easy way or the hard way. The hard way might be a hostile nation or roaming pirates invading their island. The easy way might be for a friendly nation like India to gently, carefully, and gradually in a measured and controlled manner expose the Sentinelese to the modern world. Wouldn’t that be better?
5. Of course, none of this is to suggest we should expose people willy nilly to disease. However, there are going to be risks and rewards, costs and benefits, for both sides, in making contacting with isolated peoples. From a Christian perspective, we should take every possible precaution not to infect or otherwise harm the Sentinelese, like again maybe have a medical team on stand-by offshore with basic drugs and all that, but ultimately spiritual priorities are paramount. What’s the use of living a long and healthy life but dying without God?