Canada Foreign Policy
Monday, October 31, 2005
  Pandemic Foreign Policy

Trade might force realignments that stem from a process that could span a generation or two, at least. China is no global superpower quite yet, though all indications are it will be by the middle of the century, if not sooner. India may be lagging, but that country’s economy should also be larger than the US’ by mid-century, if only just. If these and related trends continue unabated, fundamental geopolitical change may result by stealth. Europe and North America may become cultural and political backwaters, with the citizenry almost oblivious to new realities. How long after China and India, not to mention Latin America, Africa, and possibly even Siberia emerge as powers will Canadians, Americans and Europeans still manage to couple concepts of “those of us” alongside references to “in the richest countries.”

But what of other possibilities?

There is at least one scenario that suggests a violent restructuring of the international community not only can but also possibly will occur in a flash. While such a process may require longer than it takes to pull a trigger, it will not take much longer. The culprit is avian or bird flu. So far, it is nearly impossible to contract the disease, and even an intimate relationship, for example from afflicted hen to handler, does not guarantee an illness that more often than not results in death. But when a person who has contracted the ailment manages to pass it readily to another fellow human being, we may be on the verge of a pandemic that will reorder the world. The virus will have mutated and humanity may be wiped out.

Lest you suspect I exaggerate, one source argues scarcely more than a few or three dozen cases are needed to launch a virus that imperils humanity. Specifically, “just 40 people would be enough to start a global avian flu epidemic” [CTV News, 7 August 2005. Story posted at]. But don’t despair just yet: “…experts say one [pandemic] could be nipped in the bud with an aggressive attack…‘It is possible to stop transmission if we detect it early enough,’ Prof. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London, England said…” [cited in].

And while insisting that humanity itself could be wiped out is far too extreme, some say at the very least millions may perish. One source states “a worldwide pandemic from a mutated bird flu virus could kill anything from seven to 100 million people, according to worst-case scenarios being studied by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and scientists” [story posted at]. And what if the virus strikes our doctors and nurses first? Who will care for those clinging to survival? Could the toll well exceed 100 million?

The impact that avian flu could have on political and economic structures may be profound and catastrophic. The world as we know it may change in mere months. The workplace as we know it may become a thing of the past as employees, perhaps in vain, lock themselves away at home, seeking to avoid the infection. Travel would grind to a halt. Shipping of consumer and industrial goods would end.

But which is the more realistic scenario for change—the gradual unwinding of relations, as perhaps defined by trade, or a rapid collapse of the global system, perhaps after a sudden dose of avian pandemic? At this point, who knows? Yet if the past is any indication, those unsettling grandiose events are relatively few and tend not to materialize so often. Stating that, of course, is not to argue that another revolution, world war, or Spanish (or avian) flu epidemic is entirely impossible. On the other hand, not every arrangement promises to expire, and unravel the way Gorbachev’s Soviet Union did.

What tends to come about with great frequency is human nature’s way of equating emerging developments to those of the past—and so if that’s done this time, what can we safely observe? Well, oil prices are high, and while heading down in the short and medium term, are likely to spiral upwards within a decade. Gold is appreciating. There’s a superpower involved in small war, and doesn’t seem to know how to get out. Relations between Europe and the US are strained. There’s discord in the Middle East. There’s an epidemic about to break out and result in possibly millions of deaths, but swine flu fails to live up to its hype. Scandal and allegations of criminality plague the White House. And so far as culture goes, horror films, including those about exorcism, are making a comeback. Paul Martin makes a pale substitute for Pierre Trudeau, but at least the movies are about to serve up a fable about a giant ape that falls in love with a beautiful woman.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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