Despite comments from reliable friends that the bird flu ("Die Fogelgrippe" in German) is being over-hyped, I'm coming back to the subject AGAIN today. I am sensitive to the cynicism induced by the current U.S. government's tendency to promote a culture of fear, both to further its nefarious schemes and to distract attention from its misdeeds (Plamegate?) And it is true that events like disease pandemics are notoriously unpredictable. However, it is worth noting that most of the hype has NOT been coming from the Bush Administration in this case, but from public health professionals. It seems much more like the pre-Katrina warnings of inadequate flood protections, when Bush and his cronies were actually late to the game, not promoters of mysterious (and often bogus) terror alert levels. This is for real, I have come to believe, and it has ample historical precedent. (Reliably left-wing Mike Davis, who recently published a book on this, agrees with me--or, rather, I agree with him given his much longer interest in this subject!)
I can approach this subject from several angles, all of which are underplayed in the individual-preparedness-dominated coverage of this threat: For starters, what is the humane response? More specifically, for believers like me, what is the Christian response? For intellectuals, what is our response based on our reading of relevant fields such as environmental history and the history of medicine? And for social-justice minded progressives, what is our response to this threat based on our convictions about the equal dignity of all people everywhere?
Let me roll all these perspectives into one brief list of big issues, which I hope can help focus the debate:
1. Poverty and Inequality: If a world flu pandemic hits, the most vulnerable will be the poor, as always. Yet much of the U.S. media coverage has focused on OUR OWN lack of preparedness--most specifically our government's relative negligence in stockpiling drugs to treat the bird flu--which may affect even our wealthy and middle class people. But what about the poor people of the world? Is it even remotely conceivable that people throughout much of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia can afford treatment? And who within the U.S. will suffer most? Those living in concentrated poverty, almost inevitably. We need to think about these issues, not as some kind of throwback to early 20th-century stigmatization of poor people (or those of a particular racial or ethnic group) as having poor hygiene or being sources of disease, but in recognition of the complex interdepency of all people and the need for special attention to the suffering of the most vulnerable.
2. Long-Distance Environmental-Economic Systems: If environmental history has taught us nothing else, it has shown us how truly dependent modern, industrial society is on complex webs of worldwide human-nature interconnections to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, give ourselves energy sources, etc. As many commentators note, we may not be able to stop a flu pandemic, but we can certainly prepare to deal with the secondary effects when our supply chains are disrupted. Rugged and self-reliant as we Americans like to view ourselves, our life-sustaining systems of provisioning nowadays are more fragile than ever before in a world pandemic situation, dependent as they are on just-in-time delivery of natural objects and their processed forms for our daily survival. How will we feed ourselves? Our neighborhoods? The least fortunate among us?
3. Political Opportunism: As I suggested in my last post, my other big worry is that Bush could be preparing to use a flu pandemic for his political advantage, projecting himself as a strong leader in a time of crisis. We know, of course, that his preparation for such a crisis has been terrible by comparison with other countries in the world, and that he has ignored persistent warnings until very recently, but no matter. (Didn't seem to hurt him on 9/11, did it?) But I really do believe that we need to be ready to respond with informed opposition when Bush proclaims that he needs to annul posse comitatus (thus allowing U.S. troops to operate at Bush's whim on American soil), repress civil liberties, or whatever. And, of course, we need to avoid letting a bird flu crisis give Bush a free pass on the many other brewing and real scandals that he and his cronies are facing. Because after all, this is not about "winning" in politics as if it were a sporting event. This is about holding a government accountable so that it will become more competent over time and better be able to deal with crises such as disease pandemics in a responsible way.
For a really good analysis of the bird flu situation, which deals nicely with my issues #1 and #2 (but carefully stays away from #3), see this link I got from the bird flu blog that I recommended on my previous post. Skim lightly through the first few points (although frustrated union organizers might take some of the analysis to heart) and on to some of the later points, which address issues from a less individualistic and less medical-solution-obsessed point of view than many other commentators. Hope this helps stimulate some thought and debate.