Déjà vu – sacked science columnist years ago warned of the need for draconian pandemic precautions

US President Donald Trump was widely mocked on social media after he referred to the coronavirus as a “germ that has gotten so brilliant” it’s even outsmarting antibiotics.

Trump was blissfully unaware that antibiotics are useless against a virus.  They are used to treat bacterial, not viral, infections

This is not to deny the coronavirus is a clever wee rascal.  It delayed manifesting itself until the US had a President it could outsmart.

But scientists have been expecting another virulent epidemic for years.

Long before being unceremoniously dumped and replaced as the Dominion-Post’s science column writer, Bob Brockie warned that another pandemic was not a matter of if but when.

Back in 2007, Brockie referenced scientists who said it would take about six months for drug companies to develop, test and distribute a new flu vaccine – time enough for the disease to spread everywhere.

What could we do to prevent deaths while a vaccine was being developed?

Dutch, American and British researchers in reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) had the answer which Brockie relayed to his readers:

We could shut ourselves up at home and avoid mixing with other people

They say “social distancing” could make all the difference.

These researchers base their views on precautions taken during the 1918 flu epidemic in many United States cities.  In those days, authorities closed schools, churches, theatres, dancehalls, billiard parlours. 

Many cities forbade funeral gatherings, public assemblies, door-to-door salesmen, children entering shops and theatres, and crowding in streetcars …

Some cities had been quick to impose precautions rigorously; others less so.

Some cities had maintained the precautionary measures for months, others for much shorter periods.

The research teams could compare the numbers of people falling sick, dying and recovering in many cities.

The lesson:

Seems the most important thing was to act quickly.  Those cities which shut down quickly had fewer deaths.

In this country, the government also imposed restrictions in 1918.  Schools and shops closed (except food shops which were disinfected daily).

All shipping between ports was halted.

Brockie referenced a local who wrote that he

“ … stood in the middle of Wellington City at  2pm on a weekday afternoon and there was not a soul to be seen – no trams running, no shops open – it was like a City of the Dead.”

However, the restrictions came too late so that about 5000 New Zealanders died, 1400 in Wellington.

In the year before Brockie wrote the column on pandemics, our Ministry of Health produced an influenza Pandemic Action Plan to prepare us for the worst.

Brockie explained at that time:

The plan works its way through green, yellow and red phases and is illustrated with two women cheerfully chatting over coffee in a busy shop.

Then he tendered some stern advice:

But in the light of the new American research it seems to me that our ministry might usefully beef up their precautions.

Immediate draconian measures will be needed.

At the faintest whiff of a pandemic, the whole place must shut down.  And not for just a week or two.  The researchers think rigorous measures must remain in place for up to six months or till a vaccine is available.

Forget about civil liberties.  Forget about latte.

The New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan: A framework for action was published online on 4 August 2017. It sets out the all-of-government measures to be taken to prepare for and respond to an influenza pandemic and  updates the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Action Plan 2010.

In the US in 2018, on the other hand, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure.

According to Foreignpolicy.com, when Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, President Barack Obama recognised that responding to the outbreak overseas, while also protecting Americans at home, involved several US government departments and agencies – but none of them were speaking to one another.

He reorganised the US pandemic infrastructure to create a coherent multiagency response overseas and on the homefront, anointed a former vice presidential staffer, Ronald Klain, as a sort of “epidemic czar” inside the White House, clearly stipulated the roles and budgets of various agencies, and placed incident commanders in charge in each Ebola-hit country and inside the United States.

Building on the Ebola experience, the Obama administration set up a permanent epidemic monitoring and command group inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) and another in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—both of which followed the scientific and public health leads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the diplomatic advice of the State Department.

[ … ]   
Bureaucracy matters. Without it, there’s nothing to coherently manage an alphabet soup of agencies housed in departments ranging from Defense to Commerce, Homeland Security to Health and Human Services (HHS).

But that’s all gone now.

In the spring of 2018, the White House pushed Congress to cut funding for Obama-era disease security programs, proposing to eliminate $252 million in previously committed resources for rebuilding health systems in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Under fire from both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump dropped the proposal to eliminate Ebola funds a month later. But other White House efforts included reducing $15 billion in national health spending and cutting the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. And the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund was eliminated.

In May 2018, Trump ordered the NSC’s entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency.

The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer’s DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team. Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced.

The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the US Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.

Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail.

Hmm.  We suspect someone among the ranks of the dis-established or run-down agencies would have known the limits of antibiotics in dealing with a virus and the benefits of a lockdown.

5 thoughts on “Déjà vu – sacked science columnist years ago warned of the need for draconian pandemic precautions

  1. Too much focus on Trump, Johnson, Xi (pick the odd-man-out 🙂 ) Too much focus on history. In all of history, when has anyone learnt from others mistakes – we are human – it is inherent in us to live in the now and make our own decisions. And now is exactly where we are. Lets focus on that.

    For Asgaard – Only 50% of them. The USA at the moment under Biden? Personally I don’t like any politicians (the whole damn lot) but I take an interest in the politics…easier that way.
    An elected PM and 100 independent MP’s in New Zealand would be more fun to witness…bring back FPP!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trump in fact sought an additional 2.5 billion US dollars for the CDC from Congress in March. The claim you cite is from the failed Bloomberg campaign. Pneumonia, the principal killer in COVID 19, can be both viral or bacterial and bacterial complications are common in respiratory illness. In any case I have watched the clip and Trump appeared to be talking about hospital infections like MRSA. Check your sources.


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