4 November 2014

Pandemics: Networked Approach Needed

. @gmincy. #ebola. #quarantine. #Spain. #America.

In recent weeks the Ebola virus has dominated media headlines. Fueling global interest, the AP reports a nurse in Spain is the first person known to catch Ebola outside the outbreak zone in West Africa. The nurse treated two missionaries who traveled to the plagued region and contracted the virus.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of October 3, a documented 3,439 deaths have struck West Africa. There are currently 4,792 known infected individuals in the region. Specific to the United States, reports note possible infections in Texas and Washington DC. For this reason, Ebola has ignited interest in pandemic management.

Unfortunately, everything is politicized in the United States. Pick a party and walk the line — the sides have already been drawn. Any conservative commentator of your choice clouds the airwaves and writes columns espousing the urgent need to close the U.S. border and ban travel to and from West Africa. The beltway left trumpets its faith in the effectiveness of existing institutions. Both approaches champion an all-powerful state to battle pandemics — but is this beneficial?

Closing the border will do nothing to protect U.S. citizens from Ebola because it isn’t needed to keep us safe. The spread of Ebola from person to person is actually rather difficult. The virus isn’t airborne. Ebola spreads quickly in Africa because of poor health infrastructure and dated customs in dealing with deceased bodies. This is not the case for industrialized nations where an Ebola pandemic is highly unlikely. The border is just the nationalist right-wing cause du jour. The jargon is simple fear-mongering — the “others,” we are told once again, will only harm us.

As for the liberal approach, an internal investigation from the DHS, ominously titled “DHS Has Not Effectively Managed Pandemic Personal Protective Equipment and Antiviral Medical Countermeasures,” reveals that the existing power structure is under-prepared to handle a true epidemic. The report notes that the DHS “did not adequately conduct a needs assessment prior to purchasing pandemic preparedness supplies and then did not effectively manage its stockpile of pandemic personal protective equipment and antiviral medical countermeasures.” There is troubling inefficiency everywhere in large-scale governance but it is always the liberal cause du jour.

But what of the market? Institutions that work to protect society from disease outbreak are indeed legitimate, but centralized authority limits these institutions and often perpetuates inefficiency. Authority also restricts the libertarian principle of freedom of association and thus a networked, adaptive approach to crisis management. Such restriction empowers a slow to change top-down bureaucracy that is ill-equipped to manage rapid virus mutation.

All government, conservative or liberal, is overdone. Liberated of state monopoly, the market can cultivate alternatives to the less desirable large-scale approach to disease management. Just give social power a chance.

Take Firestone for example. NPR reports “Firestone did what governments have not: Stopped Ebola in its tracks.” When the wife of an employee fell ill with the virus, the tire company quarantined the family to stop further transmission. In addition, Firestone constructed its own treatment center. The chief executive of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Team in Liberia, Dr. Brendan Flannery, describes Firestone’s efforts as “resourceful, innovative and effective.” As the epidemic rages in Africa, Firestone is saving lives where government decree has failed. This model can now be emulated by other private institutions, cooperatives, networks and more.

It is always important to remember that social organization, in liberty, is dynamic and complex. These properties allow for adaptive institutions, federations and systems of governance. In the absence of authoritarian control, coordination and collaboration can craft effective management policies that meet challenges requiring quick action — much more so than any hierarchy or bureaucratic system ever could. The transition to decentralized power structures is a popular trend in the 21st century. This trend may save countless lives if a true pandemic ever were to hit.

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Image via Twitter user: @stateofglobe.

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