Friday, September 30, 2005

Évian Flu on Nightline

Tonight's Nightline was one of those to-your-bones scary episodes, like watching a whole summer of Watergate hearings compressed into one 31-minute Ted Koppel show. It was something so big that it brought Senator Bill Frist (Republican) and Senator Harry Reid (Democrat) together, shoulder to shoulder, emphasizing their agreement that this is The Big One. They were followed by HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt, who explained that we are not ready to meet the challenge. We're going to get "flooded" all over the world, not just the Lower Ninth Ward.

The subject was the Évian flu, caused by drinking that "naïve" bottled water. Apparently, IT'S GOING TO KILL US ALL. I'm not talking some slow-motion mass death like AIDS, or even slower-motion like global warming, we're talking just a little below "meteor striking the earth" level for sheer panic.

Here's my interpretation of Nightline's scenario:

  1. Some new pandemic virus — which might or might not be the H5N1 "Évian" flu (What's that, Mr. President? It's not named for the "arrogant water"?), but is in fact quite likely to be some further mutation from today's strain — hits some city, any major city from Omaha to Bujumbura, and starts killing people.
  2. The United States flies in medical experts like Donald Sutherland and Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak — only we have to take it on faith hope it's the Sam Daniels character and not the Donald McClintock — and they isolate the exact strain. (Hey — it could be worse! We could have some anti-evolutionist in charge of vaccine development. That would make Brownie look competent, and Cheney look cheery, by comparison.)
  3. Meanwhile, the entire global economy makes a full-on panic stop. You think the New Orleans police deserted their posts in Katrina? [About 250 did, but most didn't.] Wait until you have a whole month with no deliveries of food or medicines or raw materials to make anything and no safe drinking water. Overnight, the entire world turns into Fallujah: roving armed gangs terrorize the other roving armed gangs, with Joe Schmoe left in the crossfire, fair game for pillage, torture, or rape. It's like those 27 million people who were raped in the Super Dome (because it was all that guy's fault somebody else's fault that the authorities were so slow to respond) or robbed or killed by CNN. (Wait, did I get those facts right? You know how compulsive I am about fact-checking!) Anyway, it's a bigger mess than my living room, and there is no more Oregon National Guard to save your bacon.
  4. Four to six months after Item #2, a vaccine is ready.
  5. Now the only thing we have to do is figure out — especially in a completely paralyzed global economy — how we're going to
    1. mass-produce 6,200,000,000 doses of vaccine
    2. pay for 6,200,000,000 doses of vaccine
    3. distribute 6,200,000,000 doses of vaccine
    4. administer 6,200,000,000 doses of vaccine
  6. The simple reality is, none of the parts of #5 is actually going to happen. The cost would make the Iraq war look penny-ante.
  7. The result is that probably only 5% of the population will get sick and die, and most of those will be poor people on other continents, not just because they outnumber us but because we have the best health-care system on the planet (or so we keep saying).
  8. The other 95% of us will just merrily go on living with the fact that all social order has been obliterated. We'll be like Mad Max overnight, but we'll still be alive. Look on the bright side — in a couple of years, the epidemic will die down, and we can start having commerce farther afield than "New Orleans to Biloxi" again.
It is certainly very easy to go off into hysteria in discussing such a potential cat-ass trophy (or elephant-donkey trophy, for that matter), but we need to look at this seriously and figure out what is the best way to respond to this threat.
  • This isn't real estate, it's life-or-death decisions, so the only three important things are Results, Results, and Results.
  • Intelligent Design as an "alternative" to evolution, is not science. Intelligent Design is religion masked with a veil of voodoo wizardry. This organism is so complex, clearly some Father, Son, or Holy Spirit voodoo wizard must have created it. (Put another way, "I can't see how I possibly could've designed such a thing, so it must have been some intelligence instead.")
  • The people making the vaccine must not believe in I.D. as an "alternative" to evolution. Believing in the DNA fairy disqualifies you from working on medical research.
  • The élite have a financial incentive to do things like provide universal health care and end poverty, not just in the United States, but worldwide. The reason is simple: the more people who get infected and aren't treated, the longer the pandemic rages, which means the deeper the economic recession and the longer it will take to pull out of it. The fewer people who get sick, the faster the NASDAQ re-opens.
  • Your religion isn't important. You get a job or don't get a job based on whether you can do that job well. The same thing applies to your sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sex, height, and weight. Any other policy is sacrificing Results for moral principles on which we do not have a societal consensus.
  • This is exactly the wrong time to talk about smaller government.
Now let me expand the concept a little bit. The primary thing we should concerned with in choosing our leaders should be competence. Affability is neither necessary nor certainly is it sufficient. Shoot-from-the-hip determination is no longer a desirable quality, because it is vital to admit errors promptly and make immediate course corrections. An ability to understand complicated intellectual questions is vital.

In short, we need someone who is very much the opposite of George W. Bush. Bush is, by his own description, intellectually incurious, unswerving in his devotion to his initial gut impulses, and the folksy guy next door. He's not a terribly competent leader, especially in a crisis. He didn't do a good job on 9/11, he didn't do a good job on Iraq (before, during, or after the invasion), he certainly didn't do a good job on Katrina, and, for that matter, he did a lousy job on Social Security, "uniting instead of dividing," improving American security at home or abroad, or much of anything else.

Partisan bickering — from either side — that means Republicans and Democrats both — can only hinder our national response to this threat. That means that unyielding partisans like Tom DeLay, George W. Bush, Mary Landrieu, and Old Man Daley, have no place in 21st-century government.
[hazards of late-night blogging: several typos corrected the following afternoon.]