Is it reallly the weather in Vietnam that makes people sick?

Dumbfounded by how so many illnesses are diagnosed as symptoms of changing weather in Vietnam, Karen Hewell digs into how and why the reasoning came to be — and why it endures. Photos by Julie Vola

 

It all started sometime in late November of last year. One particularly dreary morning, I’d woken up to a bedroom window dotted with raindrops and that horrible, flu-like chill creeping up my spine. I’d gone to work at 9am like usual, but by the time I’d arrived at the doctor’s waiting room that evening, I was running a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit and shivering in a drape of cold sweat.

 

In hindsight, it had taken frighteningly little time for me to go from popping Vitamin C pills over breakfast to curled up and defeated in a waiting room chair. The symptoms’ onset were so violently quick that I had, more than once, imagined that I might be patient zero in a real-life World War Z.

 

Most of my memories of that day are lost in a feverish blur. Between stumbling home early from work that afternoon and arriving at the doctor’s office, there’s little I can actually recall about it. But what I do remember from that day is hearing one particular sentence more times than I can count: “Don’t worry, it’s just the weather.”

 

At any other point in my life, I would have laughed off the ridiculous assertion that the raindrops on my window that morning had prophesised my impending illness. Instead, I would have speculated which tropical disease I could have contracted, probably feeding my fears and melodrama by re-watching Contagion and surfing WebMD.

 

But on that day, I was going on a year of living in Vietnam, and had by then picked up a certain peculiar cultural tendency. So when one person after the other deduced that my illness must surely be linked to the ominous grey clouds in the sky, I nodded in agreement. Yes, I thought. Surely it’s just the weather.

 

After all, up until then, quite literally every single one of my illnesses in Vietnam had been diagnosed as such. From coughs to fevers to migraines to stubbed toes, they had all prompted the same overwhelming response: some combination of the clouds, the sun and the rain.

 

It wasn’t until my doctor handed me a prescription for a two-week round of antibiotics and strict orders to set up camp in my bedroom until I’d consumed them all that I came to my senses.

 

And I wondered then — despite knowing that the clouds had little to no direct effect on fevers, germs and (in my case) bacterial infections — why I’d so easily accepted the notion that my illness was nothing more than a symptom of changing weather. From that day, I embarked on an investigation into the facts behind health, the heavens and what they have in common.

 

Fast forward to today, and I have come to discover two things. First, despite a curious correlation, clouds and fevers have almost nothing to do with each other. Second, Vietnam’s penchant for blaming illness on the weather isn’t just strange; it’s science. Only not the kind you’re thinking.

 

(False) Cause and Effect

 

 

As it turns out, while the connections that many Vietnamese draw between health and weather aren’t exactly scientific, the reason that they’re drawn in the first place is — and it’s all thanks to psychology and something called ‘false cause’.

 

Effectively, false cause comes down to humans’ tendency to draw conclusions based on connections that might not actually be there. By observing a correlation between two events — in this case, changing weather and an overall deterioration of health — we tend to jump to the conclusion that one of the events causes the occurrence of the other.

 

Unfortunately, it’s often not the case. In Vietnam, false cause usually manifests as someone pointing to the sky when a coworker sneezes or calls in sick. And although it’s particularly common here, it’s hardly a logical fallacy reserved for Southeast Asia.

 

The pesky problem of mistaking correlation for causation is in fact a global epidemic, and has its claws in the belief systems of pretty much every civilization that’s ever existed. It’s especially rampant in people’s beliefs surrounding health, especially the enduring myth in Western culture that forgetting to wear a coat in cold weather will inevitably lead to catching a cold (guess what — it won’t).

 

But while it might be a logical fallacy that’s proven a global phenomenon and not a regional quirk, the thing that makes Vietnam stand out among other countries is the sheer prevalence and endurance of the logical hiccup. Even well-informed individuals, who have all of the facts that they need to conclude that forecast and health are only passingly related will still utter those same words: it’s the weather.

 

So, what gives?

 

Lies We Tell Ourselves

 

From what I can gather, it comes down to self-deception and psychological preservation. In Vietnam, there are countless environmental factors that contribute to deteriorating health — poor sanitation, heavy pollution and sub-par health education just to name a few. Most are systemic issues that are notoriously difficult to remedy, although not impossible to fix. But rather than recognising that many health issues in Vietnam are connected to problems ultimately caused by people, many opt to forego that jagged pill for something that is decidedly easier to swallow — namely, the weather.

 

After all, blaming your chronic cough on something as innocuous as the rain and sun is a lot easier than coming to terms with the fact that your daily commute to work — and the exhaust fumes you’re inhaling along the way — is turning your lungs black. Who can really blame anyone for preferring the former to the latter?

 

But still, the question remains: what does this mean for the future of Vietnamese health? How many of us are staying at home cursing the sky when we should be on our way to a hospital? How much harm is being done by those lies we’re telling ourselves?

 

In the end, my investigation didn’t turn up any answers to those particular questions. From all the things I could figure out about psychology, logical fallacy and what does (and doesn’t) cause illness, I couldn’t ever decide if blaming it on the clouds does more harm than good.

 

Of all of the things I couldn’t come to a conclusion on, though, I did figure one thing out: it’s probably not the weather, as much as we might like to believe it is.

 

The opinion stated in this article is that of the writer and does not represent those held by Word Vietnam

Karen Hewell

Karen Hewell hails from the great state of Arizona, but in a desperate bid to escape the clutches of the American Southwest/Joe Arpaio, she relocated to Vietnam in 2012. Ever-argumentative and prone to existential debates, Karen gravitates toward stories that she doesn't mind pulling an all-nighter researching. That, and she's always looking for a reason to pour another coffee. You can follow her at twitter.com/kaziverden

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