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Disaster Preparation: Part III. Planning for the Next Worldwide Disaster

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  • sharon sanders
    Al, Thank you for this series! Just great.

    Leave a comment:

  • Disaster Preparation: Part III. Planning for the Next Worldwide Disaster

    Disaster Preparation: Part III. Planning for the Next Worldwide Disaster

    In Part I, I discussed the geographic scale of disasters with minimal focus on worldwide disasters, but such disasters are not uncommon. The Earth has suffered through many worldwide disasters since its planetary origin more than 4 billion years ago. Many potential worldwide disasters such as a gamma ray burst or asteroid strike are existential threats to the human species but they remain low probability events in our lifetime with a higher probability of causing the extinction of the human race in the distant future.

    There is however one worldwide disaster that is not a low probability event. In fact, it is a disaster that has almost 100% certainty of happening in the near future. That disaster is a pandemic.

    Pandemics are caused by an infectious disease that generally spreads quickly from human to human. Pandemics have occurred with regular frequency in course of recorded human history. The most recent deadly pandemic was the 1918 influenza pandemic which lasted for less than two years. As many as 500 million people all around the world were infected and perhaps 50 million people died in a little more than a year. The 1918 pandemic was caused by an H1N1 influenza virus variant, a variant for which human beings had no immunity.

    Today, we are besieged with a number of novel influenza viruses for which people have no innate immunity including H5N1, H7N9, and H5N6. These viruses have jumped to human beings from animals in the last 10 or 15 years. Each one holds the potential to be a pandemic influenza virus.

    Influenza viruses are not the only potential cause for future pandemics. Since first identified in 2012, the MERS coronavirus is a potential candidate as are recent strains of Ebola which have caused epidemics in Africa. The rapid spread of the Zika virus among humans could also lead to a worldwide crisis. Antibiotic resistance is another potential threat, especially if it is coupled with a virulent influenza outbreak.

    As human populations grow and put more pressure on natural habitats, the human-animal interface will likely give rise to more emerging infectious diseases. Any time there is transmission from animal hosts to humans there is a potential for reassortment resulting in a highly transmissible, highly virulent novel infectious disease.

    Preparing for the Next Pandemic

    In the past 100 years, people have had a lot of experience dealing with local and regional disasters, e.g. tsunamis, blizzards, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, etc. The world does not have a lot of current experience with a deadly pandemic. People who remember and survived the 1918 pandemic are very few and far between. In the event that the next pandemic is a highly virulent and highly transmissible disease, can we extrapolate any lessons about preparation from the 1918 event? Probably not.

    Even though the 1918 pandemic occurred less than 100 years ago, the world has changed dramatically since then. In 1918, electrification was barely underway, there were only silent movies, commercial air travel was in its infancy in Europe, AM radio did not exist, and the first television broadcast would not occur for another 10 years. Today, all aspects of our lives are intimately dependent on the complex interaction of digital information in a distributed network all powered by the electrical grid.

    At the time of the 1918 pandemic, self-sufficiency at the family level was common. People raised their own stock and grew their own food. Half the population in the United States lived in the countryside in between 1910 and 1920, today less than 20% of the population live in the countryside, while 80% live in the city. Self-sufficiency is now the exception rather than the rule.
    Urban dwellers must rely on a streamlined production and distribution system for basic food resources. A highly tuned system of concentrated animal feedlots and mega-farms ensures that large urban populations have access to food resources. The distribution network is dependent on ground and air transportation systems. These systems are dependent on gas, diesel, and jet fuel to move these resources from where they are produced to where there consumed. Urban populations today expect fresh clean tap water in their dwelling. The delivery of water is dependent on adequate stores that can be distributed in a healthy manner. Virtually all of these distribution systems cannot function without a digital communication infrastructure.

    Underlying the entire infrastructure system is a continued need for communication and interaction. That system of communication today is based on a functioning electric grid system to power the delicate balance of local, regional, and international commerce. If the infrastructure crumbles we will not be able to keep basic necessities like food, water, and energy moving through the system. In contrast to the last century, today the world’s population is more intimately connected with each other then it was in 1918.

    A byproduct of the modern technology is international air travel. While it took several weeks for the 1918 virus to spread among different continents, international air travel could spread a pandemic virus around the world in 24 hours. The scale of worldwide population and the concentrations of populations in urban centers suggest that even with low transmission rates a novel disease could spread quickly in urban settings.

    Another important factor is how sick individuals will get and how many of these sick individuals will die. Even if the death rate from the next pandemic is very low, a high percentage of sick people at any one time will cause disruption in the just-in-time inventory and delivery systems and the functioning of various components of the infrastructure.
    Depending on the nature and the severity of the next pandemic, infrastructure may fail. Large portions of the population may have no or only restricted access to basic needs such as food and water. Depending local environmental conditions, people may not have adequate shelter. With failures in the basic distribution system for food and water, there could be cascading secondary social and economic effects that will take years to recover from.

    The 1918 pandemic was a terrible worldwide event. Since then, populations have grown, technology has made incredible advances, and the world has become highly interconnected. We have no way of knowing how virulent or transmissible the next pandemic will be or how it will affect the world we all live in today.

    In light of these discussions about disasters, every family should prepare for their own household, local, and regional disasters. But with the looming potential of novel infectious diseases, no disaster plan is complete if it does not incorporate considerations for the next pandemic.

    Disaster Preparation: Part I. The Dimensions of Disasters

    Disaster Preparation: Part II. Considering Emergency Preparation Kits
    Last edited by Laidback Al; February 9, 2016, 12:02 PM. Reason: typo