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January 09, 2006

Should you "stock up on basics"?

Thanks to the reader who spotted the US HHS news release about preparing for pandemic, along with a story from WebMD that seems to send very mixed signals: Flu Pandemic Guide: Stock Up on Basics.

Having summarized the HHS advice, WebMD goes on to quote Dr. Michael Osterholm as an "opposition view":

He tells WebMD that stockpiling supplies of food and water could help individuals isolate themselves from sick people, but that supplies of "a month or months" would be needed to ensure adequate distancing.

The plan also calls on people to "talk to their doctor" about obtaining supplies of prescription medications that could be in shortage during a pandemic, a scenario that Osterholm says is "effectively impossible."

Most drug manufacturers keep low inventories of drugs and instead sell them about as quickly as they make them, he says. Also, most private insurance plans don't allow patients to obtain more than a 30-day drug supply for current use.

"You can't go out and buy a 60-day supply and if you did that the inventory would dry up overnight," says Osterholm, who has been encouraging the government and businesses to come up with emergency supply plans for the U.S. economy.

ing and a little disturbing that the big American health authorities don't seem to be delivering a consistent message. It's as if HHS was so traumatized by Hurricane Katrina that the government doesn't want to be stuck with any kind of responsibility in a pandemic. So stock up, circle the wagons, hunker down, and wait for the cavalry to come over the hill in a year or two.

Meanwhile Osterholm is making too much sense. Maybe I agree with him because as a science-fiction writer I'm always trying to extrapolate a little farther. The idea of turning every man's home into his literal castle just doesn't work.

What's the point of bottled water if running water stops altogether? How long would it take your toilet to look like those in the New Orleans convention center? What are you going to do about your clothes and sheets?

And what if the power goes off? No computer, no TV, maybe a battery-powered radio...and a freezer full of rotting food. Where are you going to put it, and who's going to come by and collect it for you?

Suppose someone sees all those cheery candles glowing in your windows, and breaks in to take what you've stored. Will you be able to count on the cops? Or will you just shoot the guy and drag his corpse out to the end of the driveway?

From the point of view of a feckless and incompetent government, it makes sense to tell people to take care of themselves. From the point of view of the people themselves, it makes no sense at all. If the pandemic breaks out on Monday, maybe you can hang in there with doors locked and curtains drawn until Friday or Saturday. After that, you're going to have to start cooperating with other people, and they're going to have to cooperate with you.

Even if it's just the people in your apartment building, or in your townhouse complex, such a group is going to give you better odds of survival than you can hope for as an individual or couple or small family. The bigger the group, the better the odds. A pandemic is no place for a rugged individual.

Posted by dymaxion at January 9, 2006 03:36 PM

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