Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Politics of a Pandemic

America's national self-image was stirred but not shaken by the unparalleled failure of the Bush administration to prepare for and respond to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (Cognitive dissonance is hard to shake, after all.) Despite Bush's plummeting polling numbers, Americans still seem to view the FEMA fiascos as unamerican aberrations, or at least as events that befell "someone else, somewhere else," not signals of imminent danger to themselves and their loved ones. Americans may grumble to Zogby or Gallup, they may spend less and reconsider the purchase of their next SUV, but their actions, their daily routines, and their self-conception have not radically readjusted.

Fast forward to the next looming disaster: Avian Flu. Dr. Michael T Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, wrote in Foreign Affairs in July that the Avian Flu Pandemic could be expected to kill 1.7 million people in the US, and 180–360 million worldwide. On Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt warned that " the likelihood of a human flu pandemic is very high...some say even certain." Few Americans (outside the Flu Wiki community) are connecting the dots between Bush's Banana Republic Disaster Response to the hurricanes, and the political and public health consequences of the Bush administration's "preparation" (sic) and possible response to the pending Avian Flu Pandemic.

Here are the dots:

1. Government as Profit Center
The strategic lack of preparation and deliberate mis-management of disaster response to Hurricane Katrina should definitively pull back the curtain on the motivations of the Bush Administration. Bush and company have zero concerns about the safety or welfare of regular Americans (or "Fodder Units, in the jargon of the Bush family). In the Bush world, government is a profit center designed to maximize gains for friends and supporters--and the bigger, more bloated, and more packed with insider crony appointments the better. The Bush Administration's prime objective in preparing for the Avian Flu Pandemic is to mismanage and exacerbate the disaster to exploit maximum profit opportunities. Once you understand that the Republicans are motivated by looting, not governing, their actions suddenly become rationale and predictable.

2. Incompetent Cronies in Charge, Again
Remember the great job Michael "Brownie" Brown did at FEMA? The man in charge of the nation's flu response is also a political appointee: Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness Stewart Simonson. Simonson is a lawyer with no medical or public health management background. He has already lied to the House Government Reform Committee about national flu preparedness. Simonson's only obvious qualification for his political appointment is his years of loyal partisan service as General Counsel to former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson during Thompson's tenure as Republican Governor of Wisconsin. [See also Congressman Henry Waxman's Sept. 27 fact sheet on Cronyism in the Bush Administration. PDF available here.] You don't need to be competent if your job is to exacerbate, not mitigate, the disaster.

3. Disaster Plans to Create Disasters
The New York Times reported last week that a leaked copy of the administration's "Pandemic Influenza Strategic Plan" last week shows "the United States is woefully unprepared for what could become the worst disaster in the nation's history."
"If such an outbreak occurred, hospitals would become overwhelmed, riots would engulf vaccination clinics, and even power and food would be in short supply, according to the plan, which was obtained by The New York Times."
Translation: Bush has no plan. At least not to prevent disaster.

4. Plans about Porkbarrel Profits
The Bush administration can be highly efficient--when they are busy looting the country. The Senate is already considering Bioshield II, aka Senate Bill 975, a pork barrel giveaway to Big Pharma that removes consumer protection by absolving vaccine manufacturers of liability. [Click here for bill summary. Click here for text of bill.] Incidentally, when President Ford ordered swine flu vaccinations in 1976, hundreds of those vaccinated developed serious neurological side effects, including the rare Guillain-Barre disease, and many of them, or their survivors, sued the government. (The Nesbitt Burns Investors Guide to Avian Flu, page 13) The lesson the GOP took from the swine flu lawsuits was not to protect the public but to protect their friends. Watch for more pork-barrel giveaways and no-bid contracts to follow--just like Republicans did with Katrina. The GOP is actively working on exploiting a national health crisis for financial gain.

5. Posse Power
Bush announced last week that if quarantines are needed, he wants permission from Congress to use military force. Bush's dangerous fantasy of replacing public health planning with military might would set back federal law by 127 years. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limits the powers of the Federal government to use the military for law enforcement. Without the Posse Comitatus Act, Bush would have the discretionary power to declare martial law. (Quick reminder: the last time Congress granted Bush extraordinary discretionary powers, we got the Iraq war.) Bush stands to gain much more than just profits out of a pandemic-driven collapse of the public health system. The Bush administration has already demonstrated eagerness to shred the constitution: we can not allow Bush to use his own failure to prepare for a flu pandemic as a pretext to declare martial law on a national scale and suspect the constitution. The precedent of hired mercenaries with shoot-to-kill orders in New Orleans makes that prospect, and the consequences, too easy to imagine. [Update: Since lawmakers responded negatively to Bush's original request, the Military may next propose an active-duty force for relief efforts.]


Bush and the Republicans are in the national disaster business--the business of causing national disasters. They have repeatedly proven that they will deliberately mismanage disasters in order to line their own pockets. The Republicans have "rigged the game" on the flu pandemic by deliberately choosing inadequate preparations and appointing an incompetent political hack. Again. The Republican culture of corruption is so deep that in the face of what may prove the worst disaster in the nation's history, they have sold out public safety to make a buck. Again. There is no question that a Flu Pandemic under the Bush administration will cause more suffering and destruction than under a government "for the people."

The Bush administration has made public health a partisan issue. If you don't like the fact that there is no effective federal plan to deal with a flu pandemic, and the man in charge of the next national disaster is yet another unqualified Republican flunky--raise hell now, while you can. Contact your local media, and your Congress and Senate representatives. Raise hell while raising hell can make a difference.

Americans can not count on their government to manage a major disaster. Americans can, however, depend on the Bush administration to underfund planning efforts and delay aid to maximize damage, then rush in to award no-bid contracts to their cronies. Hurricane Katrina taught us that lesson vividly, and Hurricane Rita taught us all over again. It is safest to assume that you will have to rely on yourself for your own preparation and survival. Please get ready now so you are not left at the mercy of the feds like the people of New Orleans were. Good flu preparation resources can be found here. More good flu preparation resources here.

Finally, predictions on when an avian flu outbreak could happen in the US range between as early as 2 weeks and as distant as 10 years from now. Taking back Congress in 2006 to impeach Bush is the best way to guarantee qualified national disaster managers and science-driven health policy in the future. Possibly even before it is too late.

Many thanks to Melanie Mattson of Just a Bump in the Beltway along with her colleagues at The Flu Wiki upon whose work I drew heavily in writing this article--the conclusions presented here, along with any errors, are however all my own.

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