On November 1, 2005, President George W. Bush held a press conference in which he called for draconian measures and $7.1 billion in spending to stop the spread of H5N1 Avian flu, which was then starting to cause some panic.
“The president said that the threat of a global outbreak should be taken seriously in light of the high number of fatalities that occurred during previous pandemics,” wrote the New York Times, “including the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 20 million people, including 500,000 in the United States.”
“If history is our guide, there is reason for concern,” said Bush.
Further, he called for the military to be ready to enforce travel restrictions, lockdowns, and closings for days and weeks at a time. The government produced a report, now missing from the White House website but viewable on Archive.org, that proposed what amounts to military rule and nationalization.
The plans were never deployed. At the time, not many people took the thing that seriously. There were tests and a vaccine available, though not widely used. In 2005, 98 people died globally, and another 115 the following year.
In the end, the most salient moment in U.S. history of that vaccine was the Bush press conference and the very frightening plans that were put in place but not yet deployed.
In my book Bourbon for Breakfast, I wrote a piece on the whole topic, which is probably more dismissive than it should have been but at least captures some of the crucial economic and political problems.
I reprint sections below:
In a classic case of News of the Weird, President Bush gave a press conference the other day to announce yet another central plan to deal with yet another disaster — this time an impending disaster, or so he claimed. It seems that some birds are catching a flu called Avian Influenza or, more commonly, the bird flu. It causes ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production. It can kill a chicken in two days flat. Scary.
The Chicken Littles at the White House got wind of this and decided to hatch a plan for dealing with the eventuality that it will wipe out whole cities inhabited by people. That’s people, not birds. He wants $7.1 billion from you and me, in emergency funding no less, to protect us from the wrath of this disease, which, he says, could sweep the country and kill 1.9 million people and hospitalize another 9.9 million. Part of the money will go for “pandemic preparedness,” and part will go to individual states so they can cobble together their own plans for our health and well-being.
As part of this plan, there is a website, pandemicflu.gov, which is also a helpful link if you haven’t so far believed a word you have read. Here you can click around and find the Mother of All Flu Reports: The National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. Be assured that “the federal government will use all instruments of national power to address the pandemic threat.” That includes FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and a hundred other concrete palaces in DC.
In this report you will find what you must do: be “prepared to follow public health guidance that may include limitation of attendance at public gatherings and non-essential travel for several days or weeks.” The government, meanwhile, will establish “contingency systems to maintain delivery of essential goods and services during times of significant and sustained worker absenteeism.”
Yes, we are really supposed to believe that the government will “maintain delivery” of “essential goods and services.” Your job is to sit in your house and wait. Let’s just say that government has a credibility problem here.
Also, the Bush administration has a role for the military to do for the flu what it did for terrorism in Iraq: “Determine the spectrum of public health, medical and veterinary surge capacity activities that the U.S. military and other government entities may be able to support during a pandemic.” Remarkable what the military can do, from spreading democracy to liberating the oppressed to curing the sick — that is, when it is not making people sick or killing them for their own good.
Just to show that this isn’t merely a perfunctory line, Bush went out of his way to defend the role of the military in his press conference. “One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move,” he said. “So that’s why I put it on the table. I think it’s an important debate for Congress to have.”
Now, should this mass-death come about, our future would be rife with many uncertainties. But one thing we can know for sure: any attempt by government to manage the crisis will add calamity to disaster. It will be 9-11 plus New Orleans plus a few other amazing failures all rolled into one.
And the worst part of government failure will present itself: rather than make a mess of its own responsibilities, the government acts to prevent people from doing what they should be doing to deal with the crisis. “Stop in the name of the law” isn’t just a slogan from cop shows; it is the sum total of everything the government does.
The Bush administration, however — which is supposedly staffed by people learned in the wisdom of classical-conservative thought and informed by revelation from America’s traditional religious heritage — is just darn sure that the government is the best and only means to handle a crisis such as this.
A dazzling display of absurdity and chutzpah — that’s what the Bush press conference on the flu was. Even if the flu does come, and taxpayers have coughed up, the government will surely have a ball imposing travel restrictions, shutting down schools and businesses, quarantining cities, and banning public gatherings.
It’s a bureaucrat’s dream! Whether it will make us well again is another matter. And why should individuals on their own have no incentive to deal with disease? Why should the private sector have no reason to make cures available if they exist? Why are we to believe that the government would somehow do a better job at this level of crisis management than the private sector?
None of these questions have been asked much less answered.
So I’m reading along in The New York Times, and it casually says this: “This bird flu has infected about 120 people and killed 60. But the virus has yet to pass easily among humans, as is necessary to create a pandemic. Experts debate whether it ever will, but most believe that a pandemic flu is inevitable someday.”
Well, as Roderick Long often says about such contingencies, anything can happen. Men from Mars could land in capsules and plant red weed all over the world. The question we need to ask is how likely is it and who or what should address the problem should it arise.