The Swine Flu (or H1N1 virus) is in the air. The public health authorities are acting “in excess of caution” to curb its spread from Mexico into this country. Already, however, this virus and the publicity around it is providing another occasion to question our nation’s priorities. Let’s put it this way—the gravest terrorists in the world today are viruses and bacterium and their astonishing ability to mutate, hitchhike and devastate human beings. Yet despite small outbreaks—such as the SARS virus from China—we collectively seem to be waiting until the “big pandemic” before we come to our senses and redefine national security and national defense.
It is not that we are unaware of the massive toll that tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and many other infectious diseases exact year after year. Just those three diseases take over 5 million lives a year. It is not that we fail to realize how international trade, tourism and other travels—together with environmental disruptions—accelerate the spread and range of these silent forms of violence.
Our lethargy stems from the fact that the causes of such casualties are seen as impersonal, unlike 9/11 terrorists or state inflicted terrorism which is viewed as anthropomorphic. That is, they are attributed to proper names of specific people, gangs, armies and nations.
In 2004, when I was on the Bill Maher show, Bill asked me why I was running for president outside the two major parties. I replied that one reason was to call public attention to such issues as our nation’s approach to infectious diseases. Maher gave me that look of his and blurted “aw come on!”
For years before that campaign, the inattention given to these invisible marauders was irrational. First came complacency. In the nineteen fifties, professors at Harvard University advised students not to specialize in infectious diseases because the new rush of antibiotics had placed them under control. Myopic indeed. Our country now has a serious shortage of MDs, public health experts and other scientists to confront, prevent and treat these diseases here and abroad.
About 130 countries have signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which, in Article 12, provides that everyone should enjoy the “highest attainable standard” of well-being, to be attained by the “prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational, and other diseases.” The U.S. signed this treaty in 1979, but it has never been ratified by the U.S. Senate.
The appearance of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the U.S. during the early nineteen nineties helped prompt the Tuberculosis Initiative, organized in 1997, by my Princeton Class of 1955, to press public and elected officials in Washington to increase funds and activities regarding this scourge. The Soros and Gates Foundations have put resources into a global assault on TB, working with the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO’s total budget last year was $4.2 billion—a pittance given its urgent responsibilities. The United States government’s contribution—twenty two percent—has been in chronic arrears. By comparison, our government has granted trillions of dollars since September to the financial perpetrators of the epidemic of Wall Street speculation, fraud and costly criminal greed.
While for state and local health departments, budget cuts have reduced hundred of millions of dollars and thousands of workers on what the New York Times calls “the front line in the country’s defense against a possible swine flu pandemic.”
Meanwhile, before the recent swine flu news, Senators, including Republicans Susan Collins and Arlen Specter (before his conversion to the Democratic Party) cut $780 million from Barack Obama’s stimulus package for pandemic flu preparation.
To be sure, in recent years, both the Bush Administration and Democrats, such as Senator Patrick Leahy, have moved the needle toward spending more on vaccine research, medical technology and contingency planning. This is a response, in part, to post 9/11 fears and the continuing reluctance of the drug industry CEOs to apply their profits to discovering vaccines, which by their infrequent usage, they deem not profitable enough.
Maybe the giant steps forward will come after some members of Congress themselves come down with these ailments during their travels. As one House legislative aide said, “that’ll get their attention,” adding wryly “but only if it’s broadly bi-partisan.”
Almost seventy years ago, Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee challenging Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 elections, wrote a prescient book titled One World. When it comes to contagious micro-organisms, there are no boundaries without internationally sustained human efforts.