The Ghosts of Annandale
Guyana Chronicle
November 30, 2006

Related Links: Articles on schools
Letters Menu Archival Menu

IT IS with some disbelief that many readers of yesterday's Guyana Chronicle would have gone through a story of a building being broken down because it was implied that it was, more or less, haunted.

We are referring, of course, to the Annandale incident wherein some students have come down with a mystery illness which has baffled doctors of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation who have not found anything physically wrong with the sick children. Amidst protests by parents of the children, a canteen building on the school premises has been demolished largely on the basis that it was allegedly built over the grave of some of the Dutch people who formerly colonised Guyana.

The fact that the doctors at a third world hospital have been baffled as to the source of some of the students' illness should come as a surprise to no one.

Our laboratories are not on par with the best in the region much less what is considered state of the art globally. It is conceivable that there may a toxin or two out there that may escape the ability of our equipment to detect.

And then again, in the search for a mystery poison or germ or even malicious ectoplasm, everyone involved could be all completely off course in this enigma.

The only person who seems to have put their finger directly on the most likely cause of the illness was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Mr. Phulander Khandai when he opined that this may simply be a case of "mass hysteria." The more apt term would be 'mass sociogenic illnessí (MSI).

According to an article in a 2002 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, written by Robert E. Bartholemew, PhD and Simon Wessely, PhD, MSI refers to the rapid spread of signs and symptoms of illness affecting members of a cohesive group, with these symptoms having no corresponding organic cause.

"Mass sociogenic illness," the scientists note, "is an under-appreciated social problem that is both underreported and often a significant financial burden to responding emergency services, public health and environmental agencies and the affected school or occupation site, which is often closed for days or weeks."

The likelihood is that a real illness from a single student or a small group had in fact triggered a textbook case of MSI here in Guyana.

The demolishing of the canteen building without a proper investigation means that any investigation into a more plausible source of the mystery illness would have been irredeemably compromised.

Supposing that there was some real health hazard located at the site of the canteen, it is difficult to see either the Guyana Police Force or the Ministry of Health carrying on a proper investigation amidst the rubble.

And, if the problem did not originate in the canteen, then the destruction of the building was just as pointless.

We live in a world where science has had to fight an uphill balance against not so much spirituality but the senseless superstition which spirituality so often inspires.

In a society aspiring to some semblance of modernity, there needs to be reasonably health distances between fact, faith and utter folly.