February 13, 2008

Don't panic . . . but a flu pandemic is inevitable

Posted in Banks · 14 comments ·
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Looking at the global economy, one way to describe the fallout of the last few months is to see the world banking system as having been attacked by a virus.

A few months ago, large banks were lending to each other and dismissing the idea of risk or default as something not only outlandish but outdated. The idea that threats to the system — any system — are in some way old-fashioned and inconceivable is one of the central fallacies of modernism. For years, many economists — the high priests of modernism — dismissed warnings about humans burning too much fossil fuel.

Economists are normally given to believe that technology and human ingenuity can overcome most obstacles and, as a result, contend that mankind and science would triumph.

Many argued that the genius of the response to the first oil crisis when cars became dramatically more fuel efficient would be repeated. In short, science and technology could overcome anything nature put in our way. Similarly, this time last year, banks said that their monetary defence systems and their new checks and balances were so sophisticated that global financial risk was modest, if not negligible.

Today we see another enormous threat not being taken seriously because people believe in modern medicine. The idea that a plague could visit the western world is typically dismissed as a fantasy. Yet imagine what Dublin, Cork or Galway would look like after a pandemic.

Imagine a 1970s’ sci-fi movie, where a city has been visited by fiendish extra-terrestials. The streets are empty — no cars, no buses, no people — everyone is terrified to go outdoors. The city is paralysed.

Yesterday, I attended a fascinating meeting on the risk of a new global pandemic. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has consistently warned that the world is due another flu pandemic along the lines of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which killed more people than the First World War.

The death toll in 1918 is estimated to be anywhere between 30 million to 40 million worldwide. Since then, the world has suffered two further flu pandemics — one in 1957, which killed over two million people. Another, in 1968, localised mainly in China, which claimed between two and four million people. In the US alone, 34,000 died as a result of the 1968 ‘Hong Kong’ pandemic.

Today, with increased travel and a huge increase in the world’s population, the spread of a virus emanating from Asia would be much more rapid. Up to now, outbreaks of Asian flu, avian flu and SARS have not spilled over into the general non-Asian population. However, WHO officials believe this has been more a matter of luck than anything else. Indeed, they point out that because the last major pandemic was in 1968, no member of the present day global workforce has immunity.

At the discussion, Dr Mary Horgan of Cork University Hospital explained that no-one knows when the next pandemic will hit, but when it does, the most common reaction will be one of blind panic. To evidence her point, she told the story of the A&E ward in Cork during the SARS outbreak. An Asian man walked into the hospital wearing a mask over his mouth and the place cleared in seconds. People panicked at the sight of potential Chinese carrier. Now imagine the reaction on the streets if a pandemic did actually take hold here!

This picture of deserted streets at the height of the pandemic would not be a million miles from the 1970s’ sci-fi horror flick. A pandemic is a fusion of the common flu with some virulent strain of avian flu for which there is no human immunity. The reaction of Ireland to this threat would depend on the number of vaccines we had stockpiled. As vaccines prevent rather than treat the flu, we would have to roll out a mass national immunisation programme.

We have got to question our ability to organise such a national emergency plan and therefore, anti-viral drugs would become the main plank of our government’s pandemic reaction. However, globally, demand for these drugs would go through the roof, leading possibly to a bidding war. Even if we could get our hands on all the medicine, can you imagine the chaos at A&E if hundreds of thousands were to present themselves for treatment? How would we distribute drugs around the country? Remember the ‘iodine tablet’ fiasco of a few years ago and ask yourself has much changed?

The reason a pandemic would lead to hysteria is because of the highly contagious nature of the flu. In the UK, where the NHS has actually done simulations, it is thought that a ‘moderate pandemic’ would result in 25pc of the workforce having flu symptoms within six weeks. Most people would recover from it, but the effect of the society would be traumatic. For example, it would initially lead to the workforce taking to the bed, or at least staying out of contact with other humans.

The more frightening ‘severe pandemic’ scenario, could lead to 50pc of the workforce having symptoms. In the event of the latter, Irish economist Larry Lacey has calculated that the outbreak could cost the economy over €2bn.

After peaking six or seven weeks after the first case, the NHS forecasts that the pandemic would begin to recede but as many of one in 40 who contracted the virus would die. This is a truly horrific prospect.

A pandemic would lead to the rapid closing of borders. Most non-essential travel between countries would be halted. Immigration also would cease for weeks if not months.

At the moment, the world seems to be oblivious to this very real threat, despite the WHO’s constant warnings. At yesterday’s conference, Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways, outlined the precautions and early warning system that BA has installed in the event of a flu pandemic.

Obviously, a global airline like BA would be more exposed than other businesses simply because travel would be first hit. However, the amount of thought and money the company seems to have put into its pandemic emergency plan indicates that BA’s management, at least, believe that we are not talking about ‘if’, but ‘when’.

For the moment, the rest of us are hoping that it won’t happen, ignoring the WHO’s admonishment. The best way to regard our nonchalance is to compare it the computer user who gets a top of the range PC and then does not bother to install anti-viral software. As long as the machine does not get infected, everything is all right. However, if you are like me and freak out at the slightest hint of computer problems, you will probably recognise the panic that descends when a computer starts acting up. Instead of staying calm and allowing the logical side of your brain to think through the PC problem, many of us fly off the handle, effing and blinding. The hysteria and panic is far out of proportion to the actual problem or indeed, the remedy, but you panic nonetheless.

Such national panic is also likely to be our collective reaction to a flu pandemic. The extent of this alarm would be linked to our confidence that the HSE could handle the crisis.

Would you feel safe? No, I didn’t think so!


  1. John Q. Public

    Not to mention the fact that we allow foreigners to come here without health checks, we should start now. Roughly 75% of all the people in Ireland with HIV are foreign-born, who pays for their healthcare? The illegals and asylum seekers would clog up the works here if a pandemic were to reach our shores. Our lousy immigration system could well be the cause of an outbreak here in the future.

  2. Damien

    Suggest you check out ‘Monster At Our Door’ by eloquent doom monger Mike Davis. Great primer on the spread of avian flu and how we’re all up the proverbial creek if it mutates into a human form.

  3. AndrewGMooney

    David, your post highlights the problems with ‘conventional economic thinking’ on such issues.

    Applying the ‘precautionary principle’ inhibits economic effectiveness, whether it’s concerns about climate change, depleting planetary resources or the eternal battle between humans and the bacterial and viral life forms who also share this biosphere.

    Failure to apply the ‘precautionary principle’ however may result in a catastrophic economic fallout such as you luridly describe. Never mind the death, destruction and human suffering for now.

    I’m wondering if there was any mention of Filovirus threats at yesterday’s summit? (Ebola, Marburg, etc)

    I follow outbreaks of Ebola in Africa and I’m aghast at the seeming refusal of mainstream media to highlight this threat.

    At least with a flu pandemic there’s hope of containment with the current medicinal regime. 90% of Ebola victims die, it’s highly contagious, and the C.D.C simply have no other options than to quarantine and triage affected areas.

    My biggest fear is that the slums, shanties and favelas of the South are currently harbouring some uncontainable mutation/cocktail of viruses which will only need one flight from Lagos or Shanghai to reach London. Then Dublin. Then Galway.

    Wandering through a crowded shopping centre yesterday I heard that more of humanity will be urban than rural for the first time in human history and it’s happening this year.

    Without adequate sewer systems, inoculations, clean water. I find it very hard to be calm in the face of such a petri dish of disease causation factors.

    The Great Stink of London was the only thing that persuaded the Ruling Class at the time to build the London sewers.

    Sadly, the issue of festering microbes and viruses amongst human poverty and degradation may only be addressed when it’s too late.

    I guess Bill and Melinda Gates at least are onto the threat. And your compatriot Bono.

    Finally, what about XDR-TB! Sounds like a new sports car but it’s actually ‘extreme-drug-resistant-tuberculosis’. Treatment requires adherence to a complicated regime of medication for up to a year!!!! Not just a jab or a pill.

    Don’t want to start a ruck with John Q.Public, but you can’t have one side of globalisation (economic transformation and cheap migrant labour) without the other side (sub-tropical endemic diseases such as H.I.V).

    The presence of people living with HIV in Ireland is not a burden but an opportunity to develop health-care strategies for future generations of all Irish citizens who will succumb to HIV. Principally from intravenous drug use.

    Once you get the Catholic Church under control and have effective condom availability and education: HIV is actually quite difficult to come into contact with.

    Hepatitis viruses are far more transmissible and harder to test for.

    As poor Anita Roddick found out too late to be saved. May she rest in peace.
    If anyone qualifies for Sainthood as a Capitalist Visionary, she’s surely on the short-list, having joined up so many dots between ecology, entrepreneurial acumen, and meaningful political action.

    All based on the soundest and most sustainable of economic logic.

  4. The Triffids……..They’re coming. We must all get to the Isle of Wight!

  5. Paul Kerwick

    Well I’d rather take my chances and not get vaccinated, interesting how, many people in the world got “sterilised” after the last great vaccination program by the UN in developing nations!
    Look up the documentary “murder by injection” on Youtube. :)

  6. Philip

    Look, we all know the health service and all aspects of our local services simply do not work – and never will. The only way you’ll get change is when the virus hits, wipes a lot of them and then you can start again without the same number of cockups as previously. I am heading to the Isle of Wight right now. Have put a bucket of BabyBio into that flower pot with the strange looking weed in it. Bye!

  7. Paul

    Have to be brief this evening but the ant-viral agents promoted by the pharmaceutical companies DO NOT WORK and take a look at the side effects of the supposed market leader.

    http://pediatrics.about.com/od/kidsandtheflu/a/0207_tamiflu_se.htm

    I’ll follow up over the weekend.

  8. Dave H

    You’re asking a bit much from a government that distributed iodine pills in case of a nuclear holocaust :-)

    I think my dad still has them stuck to the inside of the medicine press in case of emergency.

    Which is worse?

  9. Dave H

    Perfect for a radioactive grazed knee!

  10. Job loss, housing crash, markets crash and now a flu pandemic …. I am going to dismantle my decking and build a bunker.

    Mr Decklander

  11. AreYouKidding

    Alright. Maybe, just maybe, we might get some sort of flu epidemic; is that to say that we should baton down the hatches and crawl into our bunkers? It’s like Paul said; we might as well cash in our stock options and pour our capital into canned goods and air supplies capable of sustaining life in the event of a viral epidemic.

    Seriously Dave, it’s like Y2K, we all knew it was going to happen. But, fuck me; the chances of nuclear missiles launching themselves and destroying human civilisation, simply was not going to happen. Likewise with a viral flu significantly impacing economic growth.

  12. AndrewGMooney

    Dear ‘AreYouKidding’

    No, I’m not. And yes, I bought 200 tins of salmon. You can ring my wonderful future-ex-wife and ask her! I think that was probably ‘the final straw’. That and when I forced to kids to forage edible wild plants when she sent us to Tesco to get a bag of chlorinated mixed -poisonous artisan factory Italian Leaves to go with the Dominoes ‘Pizza’.

    When everyone else was singing and dancing into the Millennium I was, contrarily, dancing to ‘The Ides of March‘, from December 1999 through to November…. Ever since, in fact.

    Why? Everything is corrupt and rotten to the core. Ethically and culturally. Politics and Economics only reflect this. Nothing else. This is a ‘spiritual/cultural’ crisis unfolding and you can cut down the weeds as often as you like, but until you root them up, they’ll just grow again.

    I have indeed cashed in my meagre stock options, I am just finishing tanking out the cellar and installing the air filters. My demeanour is morphing into Robert DeNiro in his motorhome bunker in ‘Meet The Fockers’, crossed with Ray Mears skinning rabbits in the woodlands of the Brit-Eire-ish Isles.

    All that’s left is to ‘buy into’ the secret tap/pipeline which some local S.A.S Survivalists in Ledbury are furtively constructing to have secure access to Malvern Spring Water. But it’s very hard to crack their code and join the club. Soggy biscuit rituals, etc.

    As for nuclear missiles launching themselves: Dr Strangelove is alive and well, waiting in the wings to Enter: Stage Right: The ‘unquestionably trusted’ Senior Officers of the British Military Establishment have the ability to launch nuclear weapons without any express authorisation from the Prime Minister or Parliament. Fact. And yet we ‘raise concerns’ about the Pakistani arsenal: ROFLOL!

    Paranoid nut-job? No, I’m not. Follow this link and Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. I hope some ‘nutters’ don’t decide to ‘take out Boston/Dublin/Delhi in psychotic -historical – British Imperialist grievance-mode‘: But it’s could happen with a minor coup on a British submarine. No, really- it could…..Never mind the shit that pours from Sellafield, ‘Paddy’: This is the stuff of nightmares. But it’s real.

    http://www.ukwatch.net/article/no_central_control_over_uk_nuclear_arsenal

    Read and ‘enjoy’ ‘AreYouKidding’, then get back to us with your considered response!

    Your link to YK2 is apposite but not for the dismissive reason you propose. Re-read my earlier post. The ‘precautionary principle’ was applied to the YK2 ‘threat’. On that occasion, it did indeed turn out to be an orchestrated corporate scam to create another cash cow to milk governments and credulous business too lazy to do their own SWOT analysis (especially the ‘T’ part).

    When they could just ‘buy it in’ from the velociraptor consultants of Arthur Andersen at the expense of Taxpayers/Shareholders. But, of course, the ‘emergency service’ that was The A.A don’t exist anymore following their ‘advice’ concerning Enron. Thank Christ I didn’t waste 2 years of my life being a prison bitch there like others I met on my brief, boring research into ‘The Corporate Life’.

    The stink was in the air then, it’s overwhelming now. There’s entirely credible reasons for giving serious thought to potentially apocalyptic collapse on all levels:
    Monetary. Governmental. Environmental. Medical. Social.

    Applying the ‘precautionary principle’ to the inevitable Flu Pandemic is an ‘economic necessity’. Unless you’re proposing the Medical Establishment Worldwide have collectively taken leave of their senses?

    It’s not being ‘Chicken Little’ to consider such options: But it is a ‘chicken-shit-faint-heart in a Panglossian basket-case’ abrogation of responsibility if the ‘Higher-Paid Help’ at jollifications such as the recent Davos bash/binge don’t get their act together on this topic and others related to it.

    That’s why ‘The Lowly Citizens’ such as myself have to step up to the plate and read the riot act on sites like this. Anyone interested: P189 of ‘Managing Geographic Information Systems’ by Nancy J. Obermeyer, Jeffrey K. Pinto [1994] is as good a place to start as anywhere. Easily found on Google Book preview. Full of fascinating and amusing jargon for those nights where there’s no shag to be had.

    Kind regards.

    PS: I won’t post any links to Ebola or XDR-TB as it’s before the 9:00pm watershed and children may be viewing. But there’s a ‘conspiracy of silence’ on these topics.
    David McWilliams is right to use his ‘mainstream press platform‘ for ‘that type of thing’. If he won’t expose this mountain of crap within the confines of ‘free journalistic enquiry and reporting’, then who will?

    Regards.

  13. AndrewGMooney

    From The BBC Science & Nature pages:

    “Map pinpoints disease ‘hotspots’: A detailed map highlighting the world’s hotspots for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) has been released.”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7252923.stm

    Excellent article linking the ‘economics’ of disease to the ‘economics’ of conservation. A useful starting point for providing rationale/justification for front-loaded expenditure on preserving natural habitats in the biosphere.

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