Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Elephant In The Living Room


Amid reports that South Korean officials are expanding the culling perimeter around the poultry farms infected with the H5N1 Bird Flu virus, comes word that they are having difficulty getting workers to perform this unpleasant and potentially dangerous task.

This according to a report from Yonhap News:

S. Korea to triple amount of chickens to be slaughtered to stem bird flu

. . . . Meanwhile, the local city is suffering a severe personnel shortage for the cull as officials there are reluctant to participate out of fear of possible contamination.

The city is under criticism for only mobilizing scores of street sweepers and daily workers. Culling within a 3-km radius is estimated to require some 1,500-2,000 workers.

"In the worst case scenario, we will forcibly mobilize public servants to complete the culling," a city official said.

Thus far there has been no word as to what `forcibly mobilize’ might mean. It does, however, invoke mental images of forced labor through some form of coercion. While hardly a happy thought, one has to wonder just how far governments around the world would go during a pandemic to get citizens to cooperate with authorities.

It isn’t an easy question. Governments could be faced with unimaginable problems during a severe pandemic, and fearing greater loss of life through inaction, might be inclined to sacrifice individual rights for the common good.

These questions go beyond simply forcing people to work under dangerous conditions. Quarantines, travel restrictions, curfews, and martial law could also be imposed, and each of these would involve an abrogation of individual rights.

Before you dismiss this, and say it can’t happen here, consider the original wording of the draft version of Bill 56, Ontario's proposed Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which last spring many people interpreted as a prelude to conscription.

This bill included a provision whereby the government, in an emergency, could order “any person, or any person of a class of persons, to render services of a type that that person, or a person of that class, is reasonably qualified to provide.”

Despite denials by the provincial government, this was widely interpreted as giving the government the authority to press anyone into service during a pandemic. Adding teeth to this legislation was this penalty in the Offences section of the bill, which set fines at $100,000 and one year in prison for each day an order is disobeyed.

This proposed legislation set off a firestorm of protest and near revolt among Canadian doctors and healthcare workers, forcing changes to the bill.

The final version of this bill was amended to read: Authorizing, but not requiring, any person, or any person of a class of persons, to render services of a type that that person, or a person of that class, is reasonably qualified to provide.

For now, the crisis over this bill has passed, but many people remember the first draft, and worry that during a crisis, the wording could be revisited.

During a pandemic, particularly one with a high CFR (Case fatality Ratio), attrition from the virus alone could account for a 40%-50% absenteeism rate. Those numbers could go even higher when you add in those who, due to fear of contracting the virus or bringing it home to their families, refused to work.

Obviously, the governments of the world have a real problem here, and for now, they are dancing around this issue, hoping they will never have to face it. But before we indulge in a knee jerk reaction, just what exactly should governments do when faced with the prospect that, by certain segments of the work force being unavailable, many lives and crucial infrastructure could be lost?

What if a shortage of Utility plant workers threatened to bring down the electrical grid or water system?

What if police or fire departments are so decimated by the pandemic that they were unable to provide basic protection to the populace?

What if Health Care Workers, or their support staff, were unable to maintain even a minimally operational heath care system?

What if farm workers, or those working in food processing plants, were incapable of feeding a nation?

What if funeral home, or mortuary workers were unable to meet the demand of collecting and disposing of millions of infected bodies?

And what if long distance truckers were unable to transport vital goods?

At what point do the needs of the many override the rights of a few?

Without these, and myriad other jobs being performed, the fallout and death toll from a pandemic could conceivably be much worse. One could easily argue that when a lifeboat is sinking, everyone has an obligation to bail; but that logic is likely to be greeted less than enthusiastically by a frightened, outraged, and demoralized citizenry.

How do governments keep essential services going without trampling upon the rights of their citizens? Is it even possible in a severe pandemic?

This is the nasty little scenario that no one wants to talk about; The Elephant in the living room that everyone ignores.

In countries where civil liberties and the right of self-determination are held in the highest regard, how do you maintain order and protect individual freedoms while still providing for national security and the common good?

Here in the United States, there are numerous executive orders on the books that could be used in an emergency, many of which would be rightly perceived as draconian in a free society. Even if the government wanted to implement them (and I am certain they would be loathe to do so), they would be hard pressed to enforce them. The government would be working short handed, just like every other segment of society, and their ability to coerce the public would be limited.

Besides, even if governments were capable of implementing a conscription policy, who among us wants to rely on disgruntled workers pressed involuntarily into service? That is a recipe for disaster.

If we had the proper foresight, we’d be organizing and training volunteers now, so these terrible decisions could be avoided. Yes, I’m aware of CERT (Civilian Emergency Response Teams), the Medical Reserve Corps, and the American Red Cross (among others), but these organizations, as good as they are, would be quickly overwhelmed during a severe pandemic.

The problem is, no one wants to admit we could ever be in dire enough straits to need millions of volunteers during a crisis. It is easier for authorities to ignore the problem, and pray it doesn’t happen on their watch.

But we ignore this problem at our own peril.

It is not a failure of our government to admit they would need the help of civilian volunteers during a pandemic. The failure would be in not admitting it.

Communities need to begin now to set up local volunteer outfits, and identify where they can be best utilized, and then provide training. Incentives need to be worked out (think: Tamiflu, early vaccines, and food for workers and their families), and protective measures such as masks and gloves must be stockpiled, so that people would be willing to risk reasonable exposure to do essential work during a pandemic.

And just as importantly, the real threat of a pandemic must be impressed into the minds of the public. We need to talk realistically about the ramifications, not gloss over them with simplistic happy talk designed to soothe the masses.

As radical as all this sounds, it’s been done before.

During WWII, housewives who had never worked before discarded their aprons and put on tool belts, and the legend of Rosie the Riveter was born. Young men and women by the millions lined up at recruiting stations after Pearl Harbor and voluntarily put themselves in harms way, because their nation needed them. These were dirty and dangerous jobs, and many knew they would never return.

And yet, people responded.

It was considered a point of national pride that citizens pitched in and helped with the war effort. People accepted meatless Tuesdays, ration stamps, curfews and blackouts with little complaint because they perceived that we were all in this together, and personal sacrifice was needed. The nation, and our way of life were at risk, and people knew it. We need to develop that same sort of mindset once again if we are to deal successfully with a severe pandemic.

Denounce it as blind patriotism, or foolish altruism if you will, but I see it as the only semi-palatable alternative.

No, it won’t be cheap or easy, but it is essential.

While some may decry the expense, consider the price we will pay as a society if we are forced to use a stick, instead of a carrot, in order to obtain `volunteers’. A pandemic could end up killing more than just millions of people.

It could kill the ideals and tenets of a free society.

These are hard choices that will only become more difficult once a pandemic begins. We either make them now, or we make them later.

Better we should make them now.

While there is still time.

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