The news media, both in the United States and around the world, are “asleep at the switch” when it comes to stories involving some of the biggest threats to human existence ever known, according to
a leading American specialist on infectious diseases.
Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a frequent writer on such topics as avian flu and bioterrorism, said the media’s failure is that it does not put such topics in context.
While the media have done lots of immediate reporting on Asian bird flu, bioterrorism and other such issues, it has largely failed to understand the terrifying consequences of such matters, he said.
For instance, an avian flu pandemic might claim relatively limited number of lives directly, Osterholm said. But the fallout from a pandemic could well be catastrophic.
“Just because these are small numbers, anyone who shrugs off the seriousness of this is a fool of history,” Osterholm said.
The fallout from a flu pandemic, he said, could include massive energy shortages around the world, a surge in other deadly infectious diseases, uncounted associated deaths due to shortage of medical supplies and treatment and more.
The relatively fragile world health system could collapse, he said.
Why the possibility of these catastrophic side-effects of a flu pandemic?
It is, Osterholm said, in part because the world is vastly more interconnected today than it was years ago during previous pandemics. What happens in one place will inevitably impact another.
It is also because the world economy has developed a “just in time” approach to commodities, from medical supplies and food to energy.
Resources are short and they can’t be easily moved around, because everyone will be in the same (sick) boat,” he said.
“Energy, food, water, transportation, communications, equipment parts, security — all will be in short supply,” he said.
Even corpse management will be at risk. “Cremation is a just-in-time industry,” he said.
These shortages will have an impact on human life and welfare that far outstrips what the flu itself will accomplish, Osterholm said,.
“Planning is poor. People just assume business will run as normal. Which it won’t!” he said.
“And no one, including the media, is paying attention.”
Under a pandemic, with people sick and not at work around the world, container shipping will shut down, power plants will close for want of fuel, hospitals will run out of medical supplies and even staff, he said. The human cost of all that will be enormous.
“People just don’t understand the implications of a just-in-time economy,” he said.
One example: Japan is the biggest importer of coal and natural gas (for energy) in the world. If a pandemic causes an interruption in shipping, which is likely will, “the lights are going out in Japan within a matter of days of a pandemic, and that will have a ripple effect around the world.”
Osterholm acknowledged that telling such stories is difficult. It takes time, money and space to tell the story in context. That’s tough in today’s media climate, he admitted.
No one in the current U.S. presidential campaign is talking about these issues, Osterholm said, and “guys like me are too easy to write off.”
But he urged journalists at the conference to find ways to make the story happen. One approach might be to note that for all the gloom and doom, there are positive things that can be done and can be reported.
–Use resources now devoted to war to improve health and sanitation conditions in rural villages, Osterholm said. This will improve lives today and have a direct impact on overpopulation as better health conditions translates directly into lower birth rates.
–Focus on better business preparedness, so that critical supplies are produced and readily available.
–Stress conservation as the best response to climate change.
Will the media be up to the task and will the world wake up? Osterholm is not so sure.
“The last time there was a commitment of sufficient time and energy was in World War II,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of commitment any more.”