Some of our readers will recall (a) China's dismal record of inaction and cover-up with SARS; (b) The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people; (c ) Winds' article about global democracy promotion as a global development policy; it pointed out the inherent and inevitable failings of planned/ authoritarian socieites, and specifically noted their inability to react to things like avian flu pandemics as a key example of what we were talking about.
It seems the chickens may be coming home to roost a little earlier than we'd hoped. Reader Eric Kansa of the Alexandria Archive Institute writes in to say:
"I want to direct your attention toward avian flu, an issue that, given its scope and potential consequences, receives very little attention both in the traditional press and blogosphere. I've been following this for some time, basically the World Health Organization is doing everything NOT to raise the alert level from stage 3 to stage 5 or 6, and has tried to explain away clear cases of human-to-human transmission (these cases mean we're at Stage 5 at least). There are also LOTS of rumors China is covering up an outbreak of Stage 6 human-to-human bird flu. China has been completely uncooperative with the WHO, refuses to let out most medical samples, and has even threatened epidemiologists. Nevertheless, the few published samples available from China (obtained from dead birds in Qinghai) all have genetic traits of strains that infect mammals, including humans. The worry is that these samples come from a major nexus in bird migration routes, meaning that this dangerous virus will soon be dispersed throughout Eurasia (it's already popping up in Russia)."
Uh-oh. Eric also drew our attention to a few informative links on the subject of avian flu tracking, the consequences of a pandemic, etc:
- A special backgrounder from Foreign Affairs Magazine covering the threat and potential effects of a global pandemic.
- This letter to a city council member nicely summarizes the stakes. From the FluWiki, an excellent resource on the issue.
- The Washington Post notes that things are heating up - and not just in China.
- Here's a good blog: Effect Measure public health blog. Note the posts on the lack of antiviral, and the emerging situation in Indonesia.
- Recombinomics.com has an excellent round up of all flu
news from a public health / genetics professional. Note how far along Avian flu is, and how ineffective the WHO has been. Posts lots of worrisome speculation about internal events in China, stuff that can't be confirmed but made more suspicious because of the utter lack of transparency maintained by the Chinese state.
- and of course, Bird Flu Report.
"The upshot: A pandemic can breakout any time now, especially as we move into the fall (weather changes and bird migration become more favorable to flu transmission). This is really urgent.
We are completely unprepared for a bird flu pandemic, with only enough antiviral drugs for 1% of the population. This has got to become a major concern of the blogosphere (since the traditional press does nothing more than rehash WHO statements), and must provoke some urgently needed planning!"
Eric's is a warning worth heeding, even amidst the threats posed by Islamofascism, nutter Kim Jong-Il and his Hitlerian Mordor-state, et. al. Here's hoping that people listen.
"The drawback with pinning faith on planning [JK: as a mode of organization for society as a whole] is that one can't predict and control life, much less plan for life's surprises. So as messy as the free society is, it has the edge where it counts -- in the struggle for survival -- because a democracy allows for highly diverse input to government in response to new challenges. That increases the chance that an effective response can be quickly mustered to deal with life's surprises."
Let's hope. Perhaps the long-standing work of Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT, and the politician most likely to grok this stuff), and exercises like Dark Winter and its follow-ons, have taught folks a few things.
Will that be enough if avian flu gathers steam? Maybe not. There are major gaps in the system as it stands, and miles to go before we sleep the sleep of the truly prepared.
In many ways, a pandemic isn't really all that different from a major bioterrorism scenario. Winds recommendations #2-9 from my June 2002 Bioterror Readiness 10-Point Platform for Change still apply, for instance. So, unfortunately, do the comments in Bill Quick's bioterror readiness post re: why the USA isn't farther ahead in 2005. There's a lot of heavy lifting to do, in order to change that picture. We may not have that time.
If we really want to "plan" for a dynamic scenario like this and get a fast fix out there, there's a simpler way: don't depend on a huge, elaborate system, but on fast point defense and overlapping measures. Spend about $1 million, and ship copies of SimOutbreak to every key official all around the country. In a scenario like this, fast and informed local reaction will be worth hundreds of millions in backup infrastructure. Include law enforcement and first responders in the distribution - they'll probably be the first to see the signs. Have cities like my Toronto, hit hard by SARS, share plans and lessons learned.
Spend a bit of time following this yourself, on a personal level, and think about what your contingency plans might be re: your family. Spread the word. Write your representatives. Point out that the WHO is soft-pedaling this, and may fail entirely.
In other words, begin building little islands of understanding and capability. Eric says "start planning!" I say "Plan less. Experience and communicate more. Become a pack in motion, not a herd in wait."
Even so, I wouldn't neglect some of the larger structural issues. Especially the ones that are law-caused and so amenable to legal fixes. The U.S. lawsuit system, for instance (legal system is a misnomer), currently makes producing critical vaccines et. al. too risky and unappealing for many private companies. Y'all might want to fix that down there, quickly, as a fast first structural step. Before it fixes y'all instead.
"A hundred years ago, our predecessors, unable to sense what had already begun, did not know the price they would pay as the century wore on. But, as the century wore on, that price was exacted without mercy."
Rarely can. Always is. There are always more things in heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of by Washington insiders - and some of 'em bite. The partisan warriors may or may not pay attention, even so. But we should.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But we have promises to keep.
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep.
UPDATE: More resources and a couple of encouraging (or sobering, YMMV) reports in the comments section.