Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Every Major Step in the Biological Unification of the Human Race Brings a Massacre of Populations"
I've written here before about the 20th-century history colloquium I took during my return to college 10 years ago. The professor was an ivory-tower Marxist who looked down with disdain on everything, especially his students, but his reading list was great. The course introduced me to Mike Davis, whose work I have mentioned and linked to previously (here and here). Davis is back with a new book called The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, which jumps off from his work on the economic and public-health effects of globalization into an examination of where avian flu comes from, what's likely to spur an outbreak, and what the Western world's response has been, and should be. Salon has a conversation with the author.

As far as actually preventing a pandemic, the bird has probably already flown the coop. An explosion of disease, burning through human populations in staggering numbers, is almost certainly going to happen at some point--the evidence Davis lays out makes it hard to believe otherwise. Stopping it altogether would require the extensive regulation/and or curtailing, and perhaps even the end of factory chicken farming in the Far East, which is necessary to feed the exploding populations of Asian cities. An additional problem is that those cities lack basic infrastructures for public health, especially in countries such as China, which have no intention of spending the money required to keep them from becoming massive disease farms.

It isn't going to start here, but given two facts: A) you can fly anywhere in the world within 24 hours and B) with this flu, you're most contagious before you're symptomatic, it's going to get here. But even a mild pandemic--say, a couple of hundred sick people in one medium-sized city--would cause crisis in a health-care system in which the number of beds hasn't been pared to the minimum by HMO requirements. (Think Toronto during the SARS outbreak two years ago.) And, of course, there's nowhere near enough Tamiflu, and there won't be, even if we were to buy up every last drop of it. Not that there couldn't be enough, but that would require the administration to make vaccine production a bigger priority than protecting the profits of American pharmaceutical companies.

But Davis notes that the Repug Party is not solely to blame for the situation--feeble gestures made and minimal money devoted to a possibility hazily understood. (Its war on Iraq is part of the problem, given that it's wasted $226 billion dollars as of this morning.) Democrats blew a chance to make it an issue during the fall campaign last year--and there's little evidence that a Kerry administration would have understood the full scope of the situation any better than He Who Shall Not Be Named has.

And perhaps it wouldn't matter if they did. Davis points out that history frequently sees "disease transitions," which grow out of major historical shifts and kill by the millions.
When the Mongols created their wonderful Eurasian world empire and made commerce between the Yellow Sea and the Atlantic possible, they also created a pathway for diseases like the Black Death to reach Europe. Every major step in the biological unification of the human race brings a massacre of populations. The European arrival in the New World led to the deaths of 90 percent of the population there. Those were disease transitions. And there's broad agreement amongst historians of disease that we're living through a fourth disease transition.
This one is brought about by economic and social globalization--and since it's probably already begun, there's no turning back.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

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