the tuna, without delay
If Pandemic explodes
and results in panic, provisions will run low
Special to The
March 28, 2006
Have you started hiding
tuna under your bed yet? The recent advice from Health and Human Services
Secretary Mike Leavitt to stockpile tuna in preparation for a global pandemic
of bird flu has given comics fodder for jokes. It seems like duct tape
all over again, with a bit of Y2K paranoia blended in for good measure.
But were his remarks really so silly? Maybe not.
In 1664 the Great Plague closed Cambridge University and Isaac Newton
was forced to take a sabbatical. Newton used the time to work on his research,
including inventing much of calculus and optics. Astronomers are grateful
that he figured out how to use mirrors to produce images. These concave
mirrors form the basis of all modern, large telescopes. You have the oppositely
shaped, convex mirror on your car, which shows things that are "closer
than they appear."
can kill millions
It is estimated that the Great Plague killed 100,000 people -- one out
of five Londoners. This was a far smaller pandemic than the Black Death,
which killed a third of all Europeans three centuries earlier.
occurred throughout recorded history, with memorable ones during the last
century. The worst on record was the "Spanish flu" of 1918,
which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. And, keep in mind that
was at a mortality rate of only about 5 percent.
What would be the worst case for the bird flu pandemic? Should we start
stockpiling tuna? And why would we hide it?
Right now the only people who are getting bird flu are those handling
fowl. That's the good news. The bad news is the mortality rate is 10 times
that of the 1918 flu, with half the people getting it dying. It also is
not restricted to the young or frail -- you can get taken out even if
you pump iron regularly.
It's also true that it is not yet passing from human to human. It could
evolve to where it does that -- mutations are already happening, and indeed
are the reason that it would be difficult or impossible to produce a flu
shot to prevent it. We just don't know what the final, killer virus will
If it finally acquires the ability to spread directly, its spread will
be rapid. We did not have FedEx in 1918. We barely had airplanes. We did
not have antibiotics, either, that could be useful for secondary bacterial
infections (but not the virus). Who will win the battle -- modern medicine
or global transportation?
The one strategy that will work is quarantine. Schools should be closed.
No large crowds -- sorry, but no Final Four unless you want a real killer
March Madness. There could be shortages of medical personnel -- will doctors
risk their own lives?
likely to be scarce
If you have to stay home, you will need substantial food reserves. The
"just in time" stocking procedure used today means that there
will not be enough food on grocery shelves for everyone. This will make
those flurry-driven bread buyouts in Charlotte look like cakewalks.
In the worse case there could be power failures. Does Duke Energy have
a plan when workers can't show up? If it happens during winter, this will
have serious consequences.
Given the FEMA reaction to Katrina, don't count on the feds to help. I
think all you can expect from the current administration is advice "not
to worry," like we've been told about terrorism. If it hits in 2008,
the next administration will not have time to do anything but clean up
The Y2K wackos stored provisions before New Millennium Eve. Confident
that my fellow geeks had fixed important software, I stocked extra rum
for the celebration, not extra tuna. Best to check the Mormon Web sites
if you want a list of what to stock -- their faith has always had them
stock a year of food.
The kids will need to borrow a home school curriculum. I'll take home
a bunch of data to analyze during my own forced sabbatical.
When it comes, it will come fast. Some thought and planning ahead are
probably wise, and extra provisions can become just an extended pantry.
If the pandemic explodes and panic sets in, there will not be provisions
enough for everybody. In the worst case scenario, there may be battles
between the prepared and their unprepared and starving neighbors, reminiscent
of that "Twilight Zone" episode "The Shelter." The
situation could get ugly, so hide the tuna. And start soon.
Things are closer than they appear.
Daniel B. Caton
Observer community columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and
astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone,
NC 28608, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.