You don’t have to look far to see the seeds of disaster being planted all around us. They can be found throughout Southeast Asia and Europe; even throughout time, where the lessons we should have learned stretch as far back as 1918. We have ignored them at our own peril for far too long.
The avian flu is coming. It is likely to be the deadliest outbreak the world has seen in nearly a century, and millions of lives hang in the balance. And one of its first causalities may be the Bush administration.
The avian flu has the potential to be the final act in the tragic production that has become the Bush White House. But to understand the scope of the danger to this administration, you have to look beyond the millions of deaths that are likely to result from a global flu pandemic. You have to examine two major events which preceded it and to which the avian flu is inexorably linked: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
As with so much of this administration, the story begins on 9/11. On that Tuesday morning, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson scheduled a meeting to discuss the threat of a global flu pandemic and his growing concern over the lack of a flu pandemic plan. The events of that fateful September day intersected, and the new focus on the global war on terror pushed attention and priority away from a potential flu pandemic.
As the threat of avian flu grew steadily, it did so out of the mind of the American public. The recent emergence of the issue was the result of a campaign from public health professionals to force public awareness and developing events that could no longer be ignored.
Two weeks ago, President Bush publicly unveiled the 396-page plan that calls for $7.1 billion to prepare America for a possible pandemic. It was the same plan Thompson wanted four years earlier and that still had not been completed when he left the Cabinet, prompting him to warn as he departed that the avian flu was “a really huge bomb that could adversely impact the health care of the world.”
And now, four years later, we have a plan. But if 9/11 was the beginning of this story and avian flu is the end, then Hurricane Katrina was the warning to be heeded in-between.
Like avian flu, the lessons from Hurricane Katrina also begin on 9/11. It was on that day that the president donned the mantle of the wartime president. Billions were spent to protect America, to create a Department of Homeland Security, to cast the president as the strong protector of the country that helped him defeat John Kerry.
But that image was shattered as Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi. As millions watched in horror, the new bureaucracies that were supposed to keep us safe from terrorist attack were unable to rescue Americans trapped in New Orleans for nearly a week.
And therein lies the fear and hopefully, the lesson, for the Bush administration. The pandemic plan requires level of coordination between local, state and federal officials almost unparalleled in American history. After the response to Hurricane Katrina, the government has a long way to go to reestablish its credibility on that issue, but it must. The stakes are too high and the statistics are sobering, even frightening. This will not be an American sleeping giant moment.
Everything possible has to be done now, immediately, to prepare the nation and the government to deal with a threat deadlier than al-Qaida or any hurricane. The Washington Post quotes a former Health and Human Services Department flu specialist who predicted that the flu pandemic might kill 1.9 million Americans and infect nearly half the country over the course of 12-18 months.
That ending hasn’t been written yet. As President Bush noted when he unveiled the pandemic plan, “Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland.” So has the White House. Let us just hope it heeds that warning.
-The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.