Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Combating "The Great Influenza"

In his recent essay “A Nation of Sheeple”, Dr. Walter E. Williams of George Mason University laments that Americans may accept the Federalization of local law enforcement should an outbreak of Avian Influenza occur in the US. He believes the proposal to use the US Military to enforce a quarantine, if necessary, is just the latest in a series of government power grabs.

I agree with Dr. Williams that government at all levels has a seemingly insatiable appetite for power and control. Other government meddling he mentioned in his essay, such as anti-smoking ordinances, seat-belt laws, monitoring financial transactions, etc., are certainly ones which can be debated on libertarian / small-government grounds. But on the issue of federalizing the response to an Influenza epidemic, including using the US Military, if necessary, I think Dr. Williams is being short-sighted.

First, an outbreak of Influenza in this country really is an invasion, an invasion of disease. A book I highly recommend is “The Great Influenza”, a compelling and sobering account of the Influenza outbreak which struck during World War I, killing an estimated 50-100 MILLION people world wide. Out of the millions of Americans who contracted this disease, an estimated 675,000 died from it and many more suffered long-term or permanent disabilities. An Influenza pandemic is far more deadly, spreads much more rapidly, and kills in a much shorter period of time than diseases which get greater attention, such as AIDS. True, an Influenza pandemic is not an invasion carried to our shores by foreign troops, but it is an invasion nonetheless. And an invasion of our country compels a national response.

Second, this invasion can potentially affect all of us unless effective quarantine measures can be put into place anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice. Because this disease spreads so rapidly, even an effective quarantine is not an absolute guarantee of safety, but it is the ONE thing which can be done to allow the health and emergency systems time to react. If the disease breaks quarantine, however, our health systems will almost certainly be overwhelmed and then we’re all in grave danger. If you ask people to voluntarily restrict their travel to within a quarantined area “for the duration”, it simply isn’t going to work. It’s unfortunate, but there will probably need to be force, or the threat of force, in order to create an effective quarantine.

Third, would you really trust someone like, say Gov. Blanco of Louisiana to quarantine citizens of her state should the disease break out there first? I certainly wouldn’t. She’d dither and hesitate and maybe consult her state legislature before she’d act, if she acted at all. And in that time, the disease could spread from Louisiana to other parts of the nation. Leaving the decision to quarantine at the state government level means we’re all at the mercy of the least decisive and most incompetent governor in office at the time.

Fourth, what is the alternative? Dr. Williams doesn’t propose one; he just says federalizing this issue is wrong. In a legalistic sense, he may have a point. But worrying about state’s rights or the right of citizens to travel freely won't mean much to you or your family if they catch this disease and perhaps die from it. Let’s keep the larger picture in mind here and focus on the proposed tradeoff; losing the right to freely travel for some weeks or maybe a month or two versus potentially millions of us dying.

I think Bush’s plan; stockpile currently available vaccines and anti-viral drugs, develop new technology to greatly shorten the time it takes to create vaccines, create an overall coordination plan, including quarantine procedures, and monitor, monitor, monitor, is a good starting point. One can agree or disagree with parts of it, but at least let’s agree we need a national plan in place to address a national problem.

Of course creating a plan is one thing; executing it properly is something else altogether. If Bush places another one of his cronies in charge, like that useless idiot Michael Brown, then we’re all screwed anyway. But if he follows the advice of the scientists and the people from the national and international health organizations, an influenza pandemic which is almost certainly going to kill millions worldwide could turn out to be no more than a major inconvenience for most Americans. It will be a lot easier for us to second guess the government’s response if we’re not 6 feet under…

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