Preventing Pandemic Influenza and Moral Responsibility for Good Government

I’ve been listening to The Fatal Strain by Alan Sipress. He claims that public health professionals believe that an outbreak of influenza will become a pandemic unless very specific measures are implemented. These include (my layman’s summary) effective isolation of the sick, quarantine of those with whom they have come into contact, delivery of TAMIFLU doses to everyone in the area of the outbreak, strict control of entry and exit from the region, provision of public health workers, lab personnel and equipment to process the samples necessary to plan and calibrate these interventions and building a reservoir of trust among the general population which would engender cooperation. You can read scientific articles on this subject.[1][2]

Needless to say, many populations in the Americas, Africa and Asia live in societies where these measures are impossible due to poor governance and weak civil society. Even in an affluent society like the United States, reactionary oligarchs exploit widening poverty to advocate for reduced public services, including the public health services which would detect and ward off a pandemic.

Fortunately, we’re living in a time of revolutions and dramatic political changes as populations across the globe are demanding improvement in their conditions. I hope that activists in those societies will set aside ideological differences and come up with metrics to measure their governments’ performance. Obviously, I believe preparation for an outbreak of influenza to be one such metric.

So, if you are an Islamist, in addition to telling me how you are purging the public media of corrupting influences, tell me that you’ve purged the Ministry of Health of political appointees and appointed qualified people, regardless of belief, and funded them adequately.

If you are a liberal, in addition to telling me how beautiful it is that your laws comply with United Nations human rights charters, tell me that you’ve taken some measures to alleviate people’s poverty and gain their trust so that, when influenza emerges in some remote village or urban slum, the people don’t drive away the public health workers because they see them as instruments of a modernity in which they can’t participate.

If you are a socialist, in addition to telling me that you’ve prevented the concentration of capital and thereby broken the oligarchic class which had retarded the country’s progress, tell me that you allow the free flow of information, whether it reflects well on the ruler or not, so that, when public health advocates use media to inform of the dangers of influenza and the necessity of the painful measures needed to prevent pandemic, the public believes them.

If you are governing because you claim that you represent your nation better than anybody else, in addition to telling me about all the wonderful glories of your nation, tell me that you are cooperating with international experts and won’t conceal an outbreak on the theory that your people (or poultry) are too pure to carry a nasty virus.

Finally, if there is such a thing as political morality, one must consider a nation’s duty to humanity. It may be beyond the capability of country like Egypt to prevent an asteroid hitting the earth. Yet, it should not be beyond its capability to comply with World Health Organization guidelines for pandemic preparation. Shouldn’t each nation understand that 6 billion people on our planet depend on some measure of global responsibility? If you believe in a Day of Judgment, don’t you think God would ask why your negligence allowed influenza to spread from your country to every corner of the globe, resulting in millions of deaths?

P.S. One of the things that I can’t understand about Libertarianism or Anarchy is their response to public health threats, be they viruses or asteroids. Might it be that Liberal government, while suboptimal to Libertarianism and Anarchy in normal circumstances, is necessary to minimize impacts of crises?

  1. Holmes EC, Taubenberger JK, Grenfell BT. Heading off an influenza pandemic. Science. 2005 Aug 12;309(5737):989. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1117128
  2. Barry JM. Pandemics: avoiding the mistakes of 1918. Nature. 2009;459:324–5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/459324a
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