Not long before the First World War plunged Europe into chaos, German novelist Thomas Mann rode a train to the Swiss village of Davos to meet his wife at a renowned tuberculosis sanitarium there.
That Alpine visit inspired ''The Magic Mountain,'' a novel published in 1924 that depicted the Davos sanitarium as a microcosm of prewar Europe's malaise - and strengthened the international reputation of snowy Davos as a place for contemplation and recovery.By now, Mann's old sanitarium has been converted into a luxury hotel, offering beauty aids instead of TB treatments. And, just a few blocks down the hill, a younger institution - the World Economic Forum, founded in 1971 - has emerged as a kind of summit sanitarium for international economic health.
Instead of the wealthy but afflicted European elite who once gathered at the old TB treatment center, however, today's Davos forums attract a ''Who's Who'' gathering of business, political and scientific leaders. It's the ultimate globalization village, a networking Disneyland where Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates can be spotted through windows, first lady Hillary Clinton hits the ski slopes, heavyweight German Chancellor Helmut Kohl eyes bakery goods, and financier George Soros counts his change at a local restaurant.
This year, participants in the annual winter summit gave what one cynic called ''the hot-air treatment'' to a stunning range of issues - from ''Will vaccines halt the spread of infectious disease?'' to ''The global impact of the Asian meltdown.'' Those two topics may seem completely unrelated, but the ''Asian flu'' brought them together by making economic health a central issue: What sort of policy vaccination would prevent that flu from spreading to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the world's strongest economies?
Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature on the strength of his Davos novel, would be intrigued by the imagery. Could such hot-air treatments on the Magic Mountain help cure the Asian financial flu? Or do the annual summits offer little more than 90s-era beauty treatments, fussing with outside appearances while the disease rages unabated from Indonesia to Korea?
Many business and political leaders at Davos expressed confidence the Asian flu can be contained, but they hardly agreed on the elements of a plan to prevent a possible epidemic. For example, Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. undersecretary of State for economic and business affairs, explained that there is no ready solution because ''we are in unchartered waters.''
Part of the complex problem is today's potential for dizzyingly swift movements of capital, flowing like flooding rivers around marooned financial institutions. While the International Monetary Fund can sometimes help, it also has become part of the problem. Some at Davos proposed creating a new international agency that would act as a giant clearinghouse for international credits; others envision an international board to oversee large credit arrangements and assess the credit worthiness of borrowing countries.
Whatever the long-term solution, the greatest short-term threat from the Asian disease may be the potential for social and political unrest that sometimes accompanies economic depression and high unemployment. After all, Adolf Hitler would not have risen to power in Germany in 1933 if the nation's economy had not been suffering severe malaise. Even today, Mr. Kohl faces growing public discontent because of German's high jobless rate.
The 67-year-old ''Lard Chancellor,'' whose weight at times tops 300 pounds, may need to take a cure himself. But Mr. Kohl, who delivered the opening speech at Davos, likens the state of his own health to the state of Germany itself - robust, despite the outward signs. After defending Germany's economy, he predicted that Asia has ''good future prospects,'' so long as its leaders ''carry out necessary reforms and adjustments.''
That optimistic prognosis for Asia warms the heart of experts like Takeshi Kondo, who directs international operations for the Itochu trading house in Tokyo. He asserts that - once needed reforms are implemented - Asian economies will emerge ''freer, fairer and more transparent than before.''
In the meantime, let's hope that the cure for the Asian flu - implementing those reforms - does not turn out to be worse than the disease. One theme of ''The Magic Mountain'' is that a patient can emerge strengthened after enduring the hardships of sickness - and, on a metaphysical level, suffering through international malaise. The medical parallel is inoculation, which makes patients put up with minor pain to prevent the full-scale disease.
In an ideal world, the Asian flu will prove to be such an illness, one that economic and political leaders can cure by using the lessons learned from the Asian meltdown to ward off potential problems elsewhere.
If that happens, something good will have emerged from this year's summit on the Magic Mountain, where six days of hot-air treatments aim to ease the symptoms - if not the underlying causes - of the Asian flu.