July 07, 2005

Working Together on Borrowed Time

I learned last week a new word PIETAS

Pietas is an ancient and noble Roman virtue that teaches reverence and gratitude for  those on whose shoulders we stand.  I want to to applaud today not the famous people in American history, but all those Americans on whose shoulders we stand because of the way they worked together. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, that famous French observer of Democracy in America,  observed how uniquely American was the characteristic to working together IN ASSOCIATION to achieve common goals.  Political factions and religious groups are the most obvious associations but de Tocqueville found Americans coming together in associations to plan fetes, raise churches, build inns and distribute books. 

In 1831, he remarked that at the head of a new undertaking, you would find the government in France, a great lord in England, and an association in the United States.

When we want to get something done, we find people of like minds and we do it together.  We connect and we share alike in a common endeavor.  Toastmasters is a wonderful example.  Each of us wants to become more comfortable speaking in public.  Together, we all help each other do precisely that.  Another great example is Alcoholics Anonymous.  Without a doubt the most successful way to deal with addiction,  AA exists only to help each member get and stay sober with the help of every other member.

Apart from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, my most treasured American possession is the free public library.  In 1833, not far from here in Peterborough NH, the first public library was spontaneously organized by ordinary people like you and me who wanted knowledge to be available to anyone who wanted to educate themselves.   

One can say that the World Wide Web is an example of an association or a network that exists only in its links and connections.  No one is in charge, no one runs it.  We are "small pieces loosely joined" in the words of Dave Weinberger which is also a wonderful book.

This self-organization of people into associations and networks can only happen in an open society where everyone is free to do whatever they want.  Even free to disobey authority.

Engineers who have studied the collapse of the World Trade Towers for the past 4 years  learned something remarkable.  In a connected world, ordinary people have better information than officials and disobeying authority may be the best thing to do.  By ignoring official advice not to use the elevators and to stay put in their offices, some additional 2500 lives were saved on September 11.

Living in America, I am an optimist, confident that the good sense of the American people will prevail whatever happens or we will at least muddle through.  But I wouldn’t be so confident if I didn’t believe in the constructive use of pessimism to anticipate what could go wrong and how to prepare against it.  I was trained as a lawyer after all.

That’s why I’m such an advocate for preparedness.  Being prepared for just about anything gives you not only peace of mind but the confidence to prevail whatever happens.  With such confidence comes courage.  Courage is action in the face of fear.  Action itself dispells fear which I liken to a cloud of unknowing.

You will need that confidence and that courage as well as the American talent for association to prevail and survive if what appears likely to happen, happens.

A global pandemic of avian flu is likely this year or next or the year after that that could kill tens of millions worldwide.  Avian flu, in particular, the H5N1 virus has been evolving, crossed the species barrier, infected and caused the death of 54 people.  The World Health Organization openly admits that everyone is unprepared and says we are living on borrowed time.  We don’t yet have a national plan or vaccines for more than 1% of the population.  Our public health response is in no way prepared.  Given television and the Internet, the potential for panic is huge.

A medium level pandemic in the United States would cause half a million deaths, more than two million hospitalized, sicken a third of the population or some sixty seven million of us and cost $166 billion in direct medical costs. 

If such a pandemic were to break out today, the US Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said, “We’re screwed.”

As I wrote earlier in On Borrowed Time

If there is a pandemic, it will be everywhere.
The scene of the disaster will be everywhere.
Everywhere is local. 
All the battles will be fought on the local level.

That’s where I’m counting on the American genius for self-organizing associations to prevail.

Here are some useful links where you can learn a lot more.

Trust for America’s Health, report on A Killer Flu, June 2005.

Flu Wiki
Wikipedia entry  on
bird flu

Nature Magazine's special report,
Are We Ready
fictional blog by Declan Butler, senior reporter,  describes the imagined outbreak and first alerted me to this growing threat

Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2005
The Next Pandemic, by Laurie Garrett

On Borrowed Time, my first blog post on the subject of Avian Flu

Effect Measure,  a blog of senior public health scientists

Canada Sue imagines a pandemic in her hometown of 100,000

Avian Flu blog What we need to know

World Health Organization,
Avian flu

U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Key Facts: Avian Flu and H5N1 virus

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Posted by Jill Fallon at July 7, 2005 03:24 AM | Permalink