BANGKOK - On my way to Southeast Asia to cover the risk of an avian flu pandemic, another disaster erupted in my path. Northern Pakistan and Kashmir, one of the world's most majestic regions, and dear to me from my years covering the Afghan wars, was ravaged by a monster earthquake that may have killed up to 40,000 people, half of them children.
How effectively Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government reacts may determine its future. Disasters either make or break politicians. Compare New York mayor Rudi Guiliani's resolute leadership after 9/11 to U.S. President George Bush's bungling over Hurricane Katrina.
Ironically, America's on-again, off-again hostility to Pakistan seriously hampered its emergency effort. A U.S. military embargo on Pakistan over its nuclear program prevented Islamabad from acquiring the heavy lift helicopters it now desperately needs.
The Bush administration wrongly accused major Islamic international charities with terrorism and shut them down. They would normally lead emergency aid and relief efforts in ravaged Pakistan.
On U.S. TV, I was actually asked, "how many al-Qaida were killed by the quake?" My reply: A handful, but not worth single dead Pakistani child.
Weep for Pakistan. A generation of children in its poorest region was erased, and national development set back a decade.
Now, an greater scourge may soon break upon us. And like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, America's self-professed "war president" is again asleep on guard duty.
World scientists have warned for years that avian flu, concentrated here in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and China, will spread across the globe -- it has already reached Eastern Europe. If the virus jumps to humans, we will face a global pandemic some experts say could rival or even surpass the deadly 1918 Spanish avian flu that killed 40-50 million worldwide.
Humans lack natural resistance to the oncoming superflu. So far, only 60 people have died in Southeast Asia after direct contact with domestic fowl. But genetic mutation is already under way.
And when the flu pandemic goes global -- experts fear some time this winter -- there won't be time to produce enough vaccines. Many U.S. vaccine plants have been closed because of non-profitability. The Bush administration, which is spending $362 billion on its fool's war in Iraq, lacks funds to restart vaccine production. Last winter, the U.S. even ran out of normal flu vaccine. Billions for aggressive wars -- pennies for national health -- a policy worthy of the old Soviet Union.
If the pandemic hits this year, there will be worldwide shortages of flu vaccine. Bush's dithering and inattention to this grave threat has left Americans open to pandemic illness and civil unrest. Only now is the White House beginning to take action. But the pandemic threat was clear over a year ago.
One currently available drug, Tamiflu, may reduce avian flu symptoms, particularly in vulnerable elderly and children. The White House is discussing a last-minute order for 81 million Tamiflu doses, but the manufacturer, Roche, says it may not be produced in time for winter.
The U.S. finds itself at the very end of the world's order line for Tamiflu (Canada, France, Britain, and Japan all laid in stocks well in advance). What egregious negligence by a government so obsessed with the minor threat of terrorism and conquering Iraq it averts its eyes from an oncoming disease tsunami.
Riots, chaos, mass evacuations, and economic collapse can be expected if the pandemic hits the woefully unprepared United States. Those know-it-all Republican Conservatives who sneer at other nations' "socialist" public health programs may be the first to die if the flu pandemic hits.
Copyright © 2005, Canoe Inc.