Avian flu pandemic resembles Katrina

During and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, there was a large amount of discussion about whether race was a factor in dealing with the devastation of New Orleans. Unfortunately, most of the debate was framed in political terms, and the participants were more interested in bending public opinion toward their favorite party rather than advancing a better understanding of the issue.

It is more than an academic or political debate, but a matter that might be overblown if the potential pandemic of avian flu that a United Nations official said could kill as many as 150 million people worldwide becomes a reality.

Does nature discriminate? Yes it does. Katrina was particularly vicious with those who couldn’t leave town either because they were not informed enough, they couldn’t afford to leave or because they were “brave” enough to try and ride it out. All of these factors left poor people in bad shape.

We then have history (slavery, Jim Crow, etc.), which has made sure that black people remain overwhelmingly on the poverty side. Add to this the priorities of an elitist party who care more about having dinner (i.e. FEMA’s Brown) and whose mothers have only paternalistic contempt only for the poor (i.e. W’s mommy) and you get a really ugly picture.

Mike Davis, author of the classic book about LA City of Quartz, just published “The Monster At Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.” He takes on typically ignored factors and takes a critical view of the preparation plans laid out by the Bush administration.

One of his major points is that the world is in a worse situation than during the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed between 25 and 50 million people in 1918 and 1919. The reason being that the population living in the slums of third world reached 1 billion, according to the UN, qualitatively larger than a century ago. These are areas with overwhelmingly poor people living in “appalling conditions of public sanitation” whose “public health infrastructures that have been in many cases devastated by debt and by structural adjustment in the 1980s”. This situation creates an “absolute optimum situation not only for the rapid spread of an avian flu epidemic or other potential epidemics, pandemics, but also it preserves its virulence.” (Interview with Mike Davis in Democracy Now!)

Another major discrimination theme is access to medication. In the case of AIDS, people with enough money can get drugs that allow them to live a pretty much normal life, but millions continue to die due to the reluctance of the drug corporations to allow for the massive production of generic drugs to save those millions of lives.

Likewise, the Swiss drug maker Roche has not allowed for the generic production of Tamiflu, the most effective known drug to treat the strain of avian flu currently putting in check the world’s health systems: H5N1.

This means that only people with enough money and access will be able to get the flu drug, plus whoever the governments buying stockpiles choose to give medicine to.

Roche has donated a large stockpile of Tamiflu to the World Health Organization to treat a potential pandemic in its source anywhere in the world where it might occur, and Bush’s plan unveiled on Nov. 1 dedicates 251 million dollars to the same purpose, but most health specialists agree that it will not be enough in the case of a major outbreak.

Fortunately for the world, not every government abides by the draconian copyright laws, which seek to reserve the rights of life and death quite literally (even the human genetic code is copyrighted!), and Brazil is warning the corporations that it will start producing a generic version of Tamiflu like they have done in the past with anti-HIV drugs to make them accessible to the poor of the “global south”.

And as far as the U.S. goes, for the 40 to 50 million people without health insurance the future is somber, as the self-proclaimed “war president” Bush breaks new ground: his priority in the case of an outbreak won’t be the health personnel that could then turn around to save even more people, but the military. Shoot the looters, that’s his priority. The petty looters, that is.

Cesar Soriano is a junior computer science major.