By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
If the current H1N1 flu outbreak does reach pandemic levels, it will not only be the first global pandemic of the 21st century, it will be the first globalized pandemic ever. This struck me reading the New York Times front page story on the outbreak this morning. It's not simply that the world has gotten smaller in a physical/travel sense—people move around faster thanks to open borders and airplanes, thus increasing the speed with which these diseases can spread.
The fact is that globalization not only abets the spread of the flu but also means that no one country can battle it. Having passed the tipping point where containment is not possible, we are at a point where the instinct toward national quarantine—close the borders!—is actively counterproductive. From the Times:
Closing borders is dangerous because many goods needed in a pandemic are made abroad, said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, including most masks, gowns and gloves, electrical circuits for ventilators and communications gear, and pharmaceutical drugs and the raw materials to make them. (For example, most suppliers of shikimic acid, the base ingredient in the antiviral drug Tamiflu, are in China.)
"You cut those off and you cripple the health care system," he said. "Our global just-in-time economy means we are dependent on others." Much of our food is from overseas. "A Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bar has ingredients from nine countries in it," he noted.
Of course the fact that we can no longer get by alone has not stopped some of our leaders from pondering closing our southern border. It's another example of the rise of a truthiness culture in our politics: Sure the experts might say it's a bad idea, but it feels right. And too often that trumps the facts on the ground.