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Militarizing Health Care
The outbreak of a bird flu pandemic could kill tens of millions--maybe hundreds of millions--of people around the world. But rather than come up with a sane plan to help contain the spread of avian influenza, the Bush administration is viewing the threat of the emerging illness as an opportunity--to push for even greater domestic powers for the U.S. military.
With new human cases of H5N1--a particularly lethal strain of the illness--emerging in Indonesia, public health experts warn that a major global pandemic is on the horizon if the virus mutates into a form that is easily transmissible from human to human.
Estimates of the death toll in a major outbreak range from 7 million on the low end to as high as 360 million--or one in every 20 men, women and children on earth. National Institutes of Health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called the threat "the mother of all emerging infections."
But George W. Bush sees an opportunity to exploit. Bush told reporters earlier this month that he would be willing to enforce a quarantine in the event of a bird flu outbreak in he U.S.--with the "use of a military that's able to plan and move."
Congress may already be helping Bush's wish become a reality. The Senate Armed Services Committee is reportedly considering proposals to increase the military's role in natural disasters by creating National Guard units specializing in disaster response--and clearing the way for active troops to engage in law enforcement activities on U.S. soil, something that's currently illegal.
Congressional aides recently told U.S. News and World Report that some senators are also considering introducing legislation that would allow the Feds, in "extreme circumstances," to take command of the National Guard without first getting approval from a governor.
Bush claims a military response to a flu pandemic is necessary because the Pentagon is "the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice," and has the ability to quickly mobilize needed equipment, personnel and communications capabilities.
But just weeks ago, police and military forces on the ground in New Orleans proved that their primary function was to "keep order" and quell unrest--not to feed, house or give aid to tens of thousands of people in desperate need.
At heart, the administration's aim of using the military for disaster relief is less about "efficiency"--and more about expanding using the armed might of the Pentagon at home, just as it has used the military around the world. As the Washington Post put it, Bush's most recent comment, "conjuring images of soldiers shooting as sick people try to cross a cordon sanitaire--could have been a scare tactic. In fact, there is no legal, let alone ethical, means of enforcing mass quarantine in this country, and flu viruses, which don't always produce symptoms in the early stages, wouldn't obey them if there were."
If the Bush administration was really concerned about preventing an avian flu pandemic, it would give huge amounts of aid to impoverished countries to help halt the spread of the disease. And it would devote more federal money and research toward the study of the avian flu strain and the production of vaccines and medications to treat it.
Instead, the administration's own "Pandemic Influenza Strategic Plan," a draft of which was leaked earlier this month to the New York Times, shows that the administration is woefully unprepared for a major outbreak. The 381-page plan calls for quarantine and travel restrictions, but concedes that such measures "are unlikely to delay introduction of pandemic disease into the U.S. by more than a month or two."
In the "worst-case scenario" laid out in the administration plan, 1.9 million Americans would die and 8.5 million would be hospitalized. That's more conservative than the actual "worst-case scenario" predicted by many health experts--in which as many as 100 million people in the U.S. would become infected.
The plan calls for "triage distribution" of both flu vaccine and Tamiflu, an antiviral drug shown to be most effective so far in treatment. First in line would be workers in plants that make the vaccines and drugs, as well as medical personnel working directly with those sickened by the disease--followed by the elderly and severely ill.
The plan omits all mention of where military personnel would fit into this hierarchy. But as author and activist Mike Davis wrote in a recent issue of the International Socialist Review, the Pentagon recently released "a memorandum assigning priority use of antivirals like Tamiflu to military forces on active duty around the world." Plus, earlier this month, the American Forces Press Service reported that the Pentagon has been stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs to combat avian flu--to make sure military personnel are first in line for treatment.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the Pentagon has to protect service members first because "in event of an outbreak, we may well be called in to assist with civil authorities in the United States, or to assist in evacuations of personnel from overseas." Winkenwerder admitted, "The step we have taken for the military is that we obtain the first amounts of that vaccine."
Overall, the Bush administration's strategic plan calls for a domestic vaccine production capacity of 600 million doses within six months--more than 10 times present capacity--and a national stockpile of 133 million courses of antiviral treatment. So far, though, the government has only about 2 million doses of vaccine and 4.3 million courses of Tamiflu.
And in a sickening twist, many American drug companies no longer even make flu vaccines--because there is little long-term profit to be made in vaccine manufacturing.
Meanwhile, Tamiflu is manufactured by Roche Pharmaceuticals in a single plant in Switzerland--and the company has been hard-pressed to meet the increasing demand for the drug. Yet, according to Davis, "When a Thai representative at a recent summit conference on avian influenza proposed that Tamiflu be generically manufactured to increase supply and reduce the cost...the United States and France circled the wagons around Roche's monopoly. Likewise, the Bush administration has rebuffed Vietnam's desperate pleas for help in establishing a comprehensive system of viral surveillance and testing."
Avian flu poses a greater menace than any phantom "weapon of mass destruction" ever did. But the Bush administration isn't interested in protecting the lives of ordinary people.
While they protect profits and step up the power of the military, the result could be a massive death toll for ordinary people around the globe.