Friday, May 1, 2009
The Swine Flu Epidemic and Personal Liberty
As the Swine Flu Epidemic threatens to upend civilization as we know it, I thought it would be worthwhile to squeeze in one last blog before we all revert back to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Although this specific strain of influenza originated in non-human species (swine and birds) we’re not supposed to call it “swine flu,” for fear of adversely affecting the pork industry. Fact: You cannot catch swine flu from bacon, sausage, or pork chops! Thank God! So let’s call it by its less-threatening name: “Type A H1N1 Influenza.” So what should we make of this impending epidemic and the various governmental responses? First of all, let’s face the unpleasant reality that human beings have been dying from “seasonal flu” since the Pleistocene era. According to the Centers for Disease Control about 36, 000 Americans die every year from seasonal influenza: mostly the very young, very old, and very unhealthy. If you trust the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of clinical trials, there are anti-viral drugs currently on the market that moderate symptoms, and perhaps shorten its duration. There are also flu vaccines available. Unfortunately, it takes 6 months to manufacture these vaccines and therefore, every year the World Health Organization guesses which three strains might be presnt in any upcoming flu season in various regions. Last year, I had the flu shot, but caught a strain that was not covered by the immunization. So although modern science has developed vaccines and drugs may help you avoid getting the flu and perhaps lessen its symptoms, there is no cure for it. Viruses evolve much faster than clinical research. They also have an uncanny ability to survive on hard surfaces for over 24 hours. Despite these daunting limitations, governments, have the power to drastically reduce infection rates, and limit the number deaths. Of course worldwide, governments have already been actively working to limit the spread of the new strain of influenza. Egypt has ordered the extermination of its entire pig population (although there is no evidence of pig to human transmission). Many governments have banned public gatherings: closing down border-crossings, restaurants, mass transit, schools, sporting events, and air travel. Even Joe Biden’s family is avoiding all air travel. Indeed, modern governments are deeply committed to the reduction of all public health risks. And there are a lot of other risks out there as evidenced by the recent spike in apocalyptic warnings. Over the past few years, governments, scientists, and the mass media have issued a steady stream of urgent warnings predicting: terrorist attacks (especially on airlines), global warming, bird flu, SARS, global recession, and an endless series of food, drug, and toy recalls. So far, the human species has survived the onslaught! My question is this: “Is there a point where the social and economic costs wrought by public health initiatives outweigh benefits?” Governments certainly have the power to eliminate not only the impending flu epidemic, but all future “flu seasons.” Simply shut down schools, public transit, sporting events, shopping centers, restaurants etc. In short: let’s just stay home 4-5 months a year. Maybe that’s a bit extreme. When we leave the house let’s just wear rubber suits, gloves, and gas masks. Once we eliminate the threat of infectious diseases and save those 35,000 lives, then let’s address those other threats to human life. What about those notoriously dangerous automobiles? Solution: 25 MPH speed limits, body armor and helmets. Or, better yet, walk! Breast cancer: no smoking and mandatory mastectomies for all females at puberty. Heart disease: veggies, no meat, compulsory exercise. Libertarians do not doubt the fragility of human life and do not deny that many risks can be easily avoided. However, one of the most serious risks we humans face is the unbridled expansion of the powers of government in pursuit of an idealized vision of public health. If there is no objective threshold for public health initiative, and if we accept the moral principle that human life is of infinite value and that government has a moral obligation to protect human life at all costs, what would our risk-free lives be like? A long, risk-free life at home playing video games and watching old videos may not necessarily be a life that’s worth living.