Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Just in case

Sometimes people accurately sketch a vision of the future based on facts and reason, and sometimes they pose a hypothetical wild card that proves eerily prescient. James Howard Kunstler has done both in the last few years – his 2005 book The Long Emergency predicted volatile oil prices, a busting house bubble and bank collapses, but in his fictional 2008 follow-up World Made By Hand he threw in an additional insult – a lethal “Mexican Flu.”

As creepy as the parallels are, it’s important to separate Kunstler’s dire fiction – and the public’s looming sense of dread – from a range of likely outcomes to this outbreak. In two weeks this virus has apparently killed 150 people, and while each of those deaths are tragic and the numbers will no doubt increase, keep in mind that ordinary flu already kills as many as half a million people every year worldwide.

Remember that officials or the media may or may not be overreacting to the swine flu. New diseases crop up all the time, and most are not serious. Most of the serious ones – SARS, Ebola – are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick. Most people who get sick from a pandemic get better. This might become very serious, or not, but the risk of death to any of us is statistically low – except in the long run.

Certainly news of this flu hits an already weary world. The elite media has too little, too late covered the planet’s limits to growth, the peaking of oil, the changing of the climate and the growing fragility of the economy, so many people must see the events of the last few years – oil price swings, bank collapses, Third-World famines, foreclosures – as a bizarre confluence of unexplainable catastrophes. A new disease is likely to push some already stressed and ordinarily clear-headed people into thoughts of Nostradamus, the imminent Rapture or the alleged Mayan 2012 whatever.

So really, really don’t panic. This is especially true for parents – kids soak up the stress around them, and it doesn’t do them any good. Talk to them calmly and sanguinely about what to do in an emergency, making it into a game. Tonight I praised my four-year-old for blowing her nose, and cheerfully went over the things that help keep us from getting sick – washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough, eating our vegetables and so on. She loves knowing the answers to quiz questions, so in the coming weeks, we’ll make a fun game of what to do when other people get sick.

Of course we might all have to keep our children home from school, wear face masks or cancel travel plans. I had hoped to bring my daughter to America this year to see my family – we don’t fly much, so every trip is a major event – and I planned to book tickets this week. Now I’ll be putting that off a little while to see what the swine flu does – European governments are warning against nonessential travel right now, and I want to make sure we can visit Missouri and still get back to Ireland.

Do try to think about what a worst-case scenario might be like, based on historical accounts of times when this has happened before. Hypothetically, what happens if you have to stay home from work for a while? What happens if the kids have to stay home? If the supermarkets are emptied? If the hospitals are overburdened? If the water is turned off?

Keep a few months’ worth of stored food, and have something growing in your yard or on your land that is edible. What foods you stock up will depend on your situation – we have dried beans and pasta in the house, but will be stocking up the shed with vermin-proof tin cans. We will also keep sealed containers of sugar, flour, oil, vinegar and spices, which would help us make dishes with stored and foraged food. Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets. Have stores of potable water, just in case.

Think about how you would sterilize water from wells, rain, canals, streams or lakes. If the water is cloudy, you could strain it through a water filter. If it is clear, you can kill micro-organisms with an ultraviolet filter. A few drops of bleach in a liter of water helps kill germs, although I’d prefer to boil it and avoid the chemicals.

Check on elderly neighbours, and make sure they are okay – flu could hit them hard. Some might not leave the house as much as they used to, so this might be a good time to offer to make suppers for them. Keep in mind you might be the only person in your community who is preparing, so you will be the distribution point for the neighbourhood – be prepared to be a leader. If you don’t have the kind of personality that orders other people around, all the better – those are the kind of people who usually take charge, and we see the results in the world around us.

Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is reportedly used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth.

Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.

Whatever happens with swine flu, there will be many more outbreaks in the future – modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime, mostly in the Third World where health care and sanitary conditions are subhuman. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread from Mexico to New Zealand in less than a day. Our food has been increasingly mass-produced in ways that breed disease – rightly or wrongly, villagers near the disease’s apparent ground zero reportedly blame a nearby U.S. hog “factory.” Companies that mass-produce meat overuse antibiotics to paper over their grotesque practices, allowing diseases to more quickly evolve a resistance to them.

If all this sounds apocalyptic, keep those second and third paragraphs in mind – this flu might not require any of these preparations. But most of them apply to most crises – they are Long Emergency insurance, just as we might have health and fire insurance. They don’t make us immortal or protect us from any future, but they allow us to get on with life happily, as ready as we can be for the crisis – or the panic – next time.

Photo: Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of "Helena As She Was" web site,

1 comment:

RW said...

Some good thoughts - thanks. We have been living cable free for the last 6 months and my children - aged 14 have thankfully been removed from the hype but we have talked with them about the Swine Flue.

It is hard to get a read on the media coverage. I tend to feel that the the use "the sky is falling" line from chicken little far too often and add to panic but at the same time - I'd rather have too much information than have them hold back.