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Clark Kent versus Superman: mundane, every-day world-saving versus the spectacular once-in-a-lifetime rescue. It turns out we need the mundane much more than the spectacular.
Just as in the parable of the tortoise and the hare, sometimes the mundane is precisely what's needed for success. Especially where bio-terrorism and natural disasters are concerned.
For instance, universal healthcare is a top anti-terror, anti-natural disaster measure, which most industrialized nations (except for America) already possess.
But healthcare is the 'Clark Kent' to the American war machine's 'Superman' in public discourse. Everybody finds the man of steel infinitely more interesting and exciting than his mild-mannered alter ego.
Unfortunately, in the cases of most likely real world crises, only Clark Kent will do.
You see, the human race is extremely vulnerable to bio-terror and natural epidemics-- for several reasons.
Humanity lost most of its genetic diversity around 70,000 years ago. Only some 70,000 years ago a super volcanic eruption brought something like a nuclear winter to our world, and almost wiped us out entirely. That severely reduced our genetic diversity (and so our protection from infectious disease as well). Since then, there's been several times in recorded history where virtually entire continents saw die offs of up to 90-95% of their entire human populations. The worst of these happened in North and South America when colonizing Europeans brought over diseases for which the natives had no immunity. But a couple other such plagues killed off maybe 30-50% of folks living in Europe and Asia before that (the ancestral lines of most of today's American population).
Scientists are finding evidence of us losing still more genetic diversity (and so becoming more vulnerable to the next pandemic) all the time4.
Technology advances have given potential plagues jet speed. In the past, humanity enjoyed a 'natural' quarantine from some disease outbreaks by the sheer amount of time it required for people carrying disease to travel from one place to another. For often such carriers (where the disease was very virulent) would die before ever reaching their destination-- and so those far lands would be spared its ravages.
Now, a single carrier can literally spread such a disease around the entire world in a matter of hours, via airliner. And some diseases don't even need a human carrier: they can spread by transported animals, or even plain old cardboard boxes of electronic appliances. YIKES!
How does overnight shipping sound in light of that?
The swelling ranks of the poor make for a devil's kitchen of new diseases. Expanding world population and widening economic desperation are pushing more people into wilderness areas too, to interact with ever more and different animal populations. This is a breeding ground for new and deadly diseases. Especially since it's all happening in some of the poorest nations on Earth, where there's little or no local healthcare to stop a budding epidemic in its tracks.
All the above risks stem from natural events. But there's also accidents and purposeful bio-terror to consider today.
Biological weapons are so easy to create and dispense that elementary school kids could do it. So it's no wonder nations too poor or primitive to make nuclear weapons might turn to biologicals instead. Especially when the world's sole world super power has nukes, and says it'll use them preemptively on anybody it even suspects poses some sort of threat to them (according to V.P. Cheney, the tipping point is a measly 1% chance the other state is a threat; so we're talking possible attacks triggered by mere rumors or outright lies1).
But bio-weapons aren't just a budgetary choice here. For America and other advanced nations are busily creating all sorts of nasty bugs themselves, too2.
Now imagine a single such bug accidentally escaping a research lab. As described in Stephen King's horror novel "The Stand"-- and many others.
Would it matter at all if the bug which wiped out humanity came from al Qaeda, or from an American research lab? No.
Sure, it'd help tremendously for America and other advanced countries to stop creating more and more new killer diseases. And rather than bullying others, to instead try making poorer countries feel safe enough so that they didn't feel compelled to create such things either.
Plus, there's this: so far in history, terrorists don't or can't invent their most advanced and powerful weapons themselves: they instead buy or steal them from the nations which created them. So if we all destroy our nukes and bio-weapons-- and stop producing new ones-- that's practically a guarantee terrorists will be unable to use such stuff against us. Problem solved!
A nifty byproduct of this would be we'd suddenly have lots more free cash money, too.
Note also that all the flashy nuclear cruise missiles, stealth bombers, attack submarines, and aircraft carriers ever made are utterly useless against a germ spreading through the population. For defense against something like that-- which has proven thousands of times more deadly to human existence so far even than nuclear bombs-- an ounce of prevention is worth more than infinite megatons of cure.
Ironically perhaps, for a threat as super-powered as this, only the "Clark Kent" of government policies will do: universal healthcare. For not only would it likely prevent a dangerous bug from getting very far in the first place-- it'd also give us the earliest possible warning that such a thing was loose, and so provide us with the maximum time available for stopping or limiting its damage3.
And that's truthfully the very best shot-- maybe the only shot-- we have at defending ourselves against such a doomsday bug.
By contrast, our trillions of dollars worth of military toys are powerless against such a threat.
Scientists have been warning us about these matters for years. But it appears no one will pay attention to them until the next great die off has already begun in earnest, and it's already too late.
Luckily, most industrialized nations today ARE prepared for this contingency, with their own universal or near universal healthcare. So perhaps the losses of 50% or so of a given country's total population will be limited to nations like Bangladesh-- and the United States of America.
Apparently that's the best any American citizen can hope for, circa 2007.
"World health experts now agree a pandemic is inevitable and will spread rapidly, wiping out up to 7.4 million people globally and triggering rapid food shortages."
-- Stockpile food for flu crisis by Clair Weaver; December 16, 2007
"If there's even a 1% chance that WMDs have been given to terrorists, we need to treat it as a certainty, not in our analysis or the preponderance of evidence...but in our response."
-- US vice president Dick Cheney, November 2001
-- The One Percent Doctrine Journalist Ron Suskind on the Deliberate U.S. Bombing of Al Jazeera, Losing Bin Laden and More; July 14th, 2006; democracynow.org
-- Cheney's One Percent Doctrine Vice President Said to Feel That If There's a 1 Percent Chance, Then Act By JOHN ALLEN PAULOS July 2, 2006; abcnews.go.com
"Deadly germs may be more likely to be spread due to a biodefence lab accident than a biological attack by terrorists."
"...the public has had near-misses with those diseases and others over the past five years...Even worse, they may be only the tip of an iceberg."
"There are now 20,000 people at 400 sites around the US working with putative bioweapons germs..."
"Instead of a 'culture of responsibility', the federal government has instilled a culture of denial" he says. "Labs hide problems, and think that accident reporting is for masochists"
-- Plague of bioweapons accidents afflicts the US by Debora MacKenzie; 05 July 2007; newscientist.com
"Their lack of insurance is a known risk to their own health, but it must now also be recognized as a risk to the nation's health,"
-- Dr. Matthew Wynia of the American Medical Association and Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University
-- Health experts worry uninsured may spread bioterror germs; The Associated Press/Nando Media /Nando Times; May 30, 2002
Even when a sick uninsured person does seeks help at a US hospital, they tend to receive a lower quality of care and less attention than the insured, both in cases considered routine or as emergencies-- and so a dangerous contagion from an as yet unreported bioterror attack would have that much more opportunity to spread throughout a community.
-- Lack of Insurance Hurting Americans' Health: Report By Todd Zwillich; May 21, 2002; Yahoo!/Reuters Health
--Myth challenged: uninsured adults not receiving needed care; 24 OCTOBER 2000; EurekAlert!; US Contact: John Lacey firstname.lastname@example.org 617-432-0442 Harvard Medical School
-- Safety Net Just Isn't There For Health Care Uninsured; [Contact: John Lacey, Judith Montminy] 25-Oct-2000; UniSci Daily
-- Many uninsured adults do not receive needed medical care; 24 OCTOBER 2000; US Contact: John Lacey 617-432-0441 Center for the Advancement of Health; Eurekalert!
30 million US workers don't possess health insurance. 40 million total Americans don't have health insurance.
-- Study: Uninsured Don't Get Needed Health Care By Ceci Connolly Washington Post; May 22, 2002; Page A03
Many of the those who are themselves uninsured actually pay thousands in taxes which end up paying for the health care of others.
-- Harvard Medical School study concludes: 'We pay for national health insurance but don't get it' by Frances M. Beal; July 17, 2002; San Francisco Bay View
"The key to control any pandemic is early identification and rapid response."
"...the critical importance of global early warning and rapid response. “The development of effective, interconnected systems of infectious disease surveillance is essential to our survival,”
"He attributes the limited global capabilities to a combination of factors including health’s low priority on government agendas and the delayed reporting of disease information. “Governments are often reluctant to report disease information for fear of political embarrassment, economic repercussions, or concern that it may make the government look ineffectual,” noted Dr. Morse. He also suggests that infectious disease activities may fall victim to overall competition for limited public health resources."
-- Progress in infectious disease surveillance but gaps remain, says Mailman School of Public Health; 17-Jul-2007; Contact: Stephanie Berger email@example.com 212-305-4372 Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health
"...I think anybody you speak to who is on the ground in public health in this country will tell you we are a far cry from being ready for such a thing. Since World War II we have really diminished our commitment to our public health infrastructure."
-- U.S. Unprepared for Bioterrorism, Expert Says By Tom Foreman Inside Base Camp April 9, 2003
-- Study: U.S. Unprepared For Public Disaster Majority Of States Cited As Being At Unacceptable Level To Cope With Widespread Public Health Emergencies; Dec. 12, 2006; cbsnews.com
-- QUARTER OF AMERICANS SAY THEY OR FAMILY PUT OFF MEDICAL TREATMENT BECAUSE OF COST; October 16, 2006
-- Finance Office of Disease Control Agency Is Slipshod, Federal Report Says; nytimes.com; 2006/09/30
-- Ancient human mtDNA genotypes from England reveal lost variation over the last millennium by A.L. Töpf, M.T.P. Gilbert, R.C. Fleischer, A.R. Hoelzel1; DOI 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0269 Online Date Tuesday, July 31, 2007