Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pandemic Flu and Libraries

Only a few days behind breaking news, but on February 1st, 2007, the CDC, Center for Disease Control released their new recommendations for dealing with a pandemic flu virus. Scariest thing I've read in a long time. Warning, thinking about this too hard will give you nightmares. Failure to think about it may be fatal. Read on or not at your own risk.

I've heard, read, and studied about the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic where huge numbers of Americans died. There is nothing to stop that from happening again. The new recommendations are based in part on studies of that epidemic and how the cities with the lowest mortality rates managed it. Of course some small towns cut off all communication with the outside world entirely.

The new guidelines include a category system to rank the severity of the pandemic. This is similair to the system that exists for hurricaines. Here is a pretty chart with scary black at the top to indicate the most severe and deadly forms.

See that is much scarier than those Homeland Security Levels were when they first came out in 2001. Because those numbers are already assuming that almost 1 in 3 people are sick. Also keep in mind that level one is really just a really bad year of the average flu virus. In an average year 36,000 people die of the flu in the United States.

Quickly some highlights of the new guidelines:
  • Close all the schools for up to three months
  • Encourage "social distancing" which as near as I can tell means that you scare people from having contact with their fellow human beings
  • Stagger work shifts to keep reduce the number of people on public transportation at one time down
  • Close public meeting and gathering places
  • Quarantine an entire household (including healthy people) for up to 10 days if one person becomes ill

One thing to remember is that many of these decisions will be made at a local level because power to do things like close schools remains in the hands of city and county officials. Unless of course things start getting nationalized. And in a national emergency and panic that could happen. That's just as scary to the part of me that fears big government, big brother, federal government, and centralized power.

This sort of thing would be devastating to our country economically, emotionally, and socially. The report specifically mentions encouraging "social distancing" for students (and adults but especially kids) out of school. That means no trips to the mall with your friends. Closing public gathering places means no movie theatres. However the report also mentions closing things such as churches. It means intentionally isolating yourself. Let's not forget the widespread panic that would incur among the general populace. Don't kid yourself, we're a nation of hypochondriacs who are easily driven to fear and irrational behaviors.

This could ruin our economy. Businesses would suffer. No one would go to restaurants, stores, etc., if they could help it. People such as teachers and support staff in schools don't really want to take three months with no pay and taxpayers can't really afford to keep paying them. (Teachers with contracts and unions might be okay, but support staff such as cafeteria workers would not be.) What about students who rely on free lunches (as much as 60% in some urban areas) and breakfasts for their nutrition? Lowered nutrition will result in a weakened immune system and more suseptibility to disease. Plus we do not have enough medical professionals, pharmacies, hospitals, or health facilities and practitioners in general to deal with this. No one in the world has the resources to deal with (almost) 1 in 3 people being sick.

In 1918, the flu spread in from the East Coast. That won't happen this time. It will be everywhere at once thanks to our highly mobile airplane society. It will be an international problem very quickly.

And where does this leave libraries?
Obviously we as libraries are public meeting and gathering places. If we do our job right, we're vibrant communtiy centers, the heart of much of what happens in our world. (Ah, but I wax idyllic.) So do we close? Everyone knows how much of a petrie dish is your average public library. Speaking as a children's librarian, I'm exposed to so many germs every day I'm considering buying stock in sudafed. And if the schools do close (worst case scenario) than we all know that desperate parents may turn to us as drop off points for their children to spend all day (heaven knows it happens in the summer and afterschool). Instead of being at the heart of the information spreading network for the community, we risk being at the heart of the disease spreading network. But we do close? I tend to think of us as being an essential service. For many on the wrong side of the digital divide, we are the only way they have to access the internet, and basic computing programs and word processing. But do I want to (literally) risk my life so someone can type up a resume and online job hunt? Let's not forget I'm the sole breadwinner for my household (which includes me and one cat). I can't afford to be out of work the time of a pandemic, especially if said time is unpaid.

It's not an easy decision. And it isn't pleasant to think about at all.

After the epidemic than what? We have a society in ruins, it's crumpling before our eyes. People have intentionally "socially distanced" themselves, creating isolationism. Our economy would have crumpled. It would be as changing for our society as 9/11. How do we recover? How do we rebuild when we've all been sick and so many of us have died? I know it can be done, I believe in the human spirit and the American spirit, but there is no way we come out unscathed or unchanged. Yes some positive things came out of 9/11, stories of heroism to inspire, a renewed sense of national identity and patriotism. But many negative things came too. The world changes, but it also keeps on turning. Though these reports have an apocalyptic feel to them, we must remember that it might hurt us, but I don't think in the end it could bring us down. In times of great challenges, we've often been surprised at how far we can rise. Even wars can bring about great technilogical and medical innovation. A phoenix can rise from the ash. I need to end positively with the hope that our country could come through this not only alive, but stronger and more unified, because I'm depressing myself thinking about the alternative. As we say in my home state of Kansas (our state motto), Ad Astra Per Aspra, to the stars through difficulties.

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