You can’t swing a sick chicken these days without hitting a pundit pontificating about bird flu. After nearly two years of sporadic news coverage, the media woke up to the threat in late September when George W. Bush spoke about the potential pandemic; now, the topic is regular fodder on the nightly news, the weekend shows, the daily papers, and the popular newsweeklies.
Everyone is having their say and, unremarkably, everyone seems to view it through their own lenses. Thomas Friedman recently opined on the Don Imus show that bird flu demonstrates the "flat-world" hypothesis of his latest best-selling book. Apocalyptic evangelicals cite it as a sign of the impending End Days. George Bush wants to invoke his administration’s handling of it, post-Katrina, as an example of their competence. Democrats say that Bush’s approach to the problem represents the exact opposite, as Senator Edward Kennedy argued in a Boston Globe op-ed last Sunday.
In fact, the danger of an influenza pandemic is real and serious. It is almost certain that the current H5N1 strain, which has thus far killed more than 60 people, all in Southeast Asia, will spread to poultry in most or all of the world. So far, almost all cases in humans have resulted from contact with live infected birds. And the virus could remain in its current form, which does not seem to spread easily from human to human (as a common cold would). In that case, it will have a massive economic effect, but relatively few fatalities. Or, it may well mutate, as past viruses have, to a person-to-person disease, in which case millions, or tens of millions, will perish.
Even if we luck out with this version of the disease, we are only buying time. The consensus is that the big one is coming; we just don’t know when and how bad it’s going to be.
It is unsurprising that the US and the world in general have been slow to take the threat seriously. Governments are not so different from mainstream media — only so many things occupy the high-priority bin at any given time, and bird flu hadn’t made it there until just recently. Yes, it should have; the warning signs have been flashing for at least eight years, if not longer. But it has not until just recently.
What is disconcerting — in addition to the basic problem of infrastructure readiness laid bare by the Gulf Coast hurricanes — is that the US is facing the threat with a perspective no less slanted than those of Friedman or the apocalyptic preachers.
In the case of Bush and the rest of the administration, that slant is primarily capitalistic and secondarily militaristic. These are, in fact, the only two types of solutions the Bushies seem to know. Name any problem of the past five years, and the administration’s proposal has been either to provide financial incentives to big business — remember that they have touted corporate and high-income tax cuts as the proper response to both recession and growth — or to roll out the armed forces.
Bush’s recent proposal to use the US military to impose quarantines has drawn considerable attention and justified criticism. But that is merely a sideline. The primary bird-flu strategy involves giving as many concessions as necessary to prompt the pharmaceutical industry to make the drugs we’ll need. There are arguments to be made for that approach, but stronger arguments against it — including, most noticeably, that it has failed miserably before.