Extraordinary statements from officials in the World Health Organization about Avian flu having the potential to kill 150 million people certainly concentrate the mind. They bring to mind Thucydides's description of the plague that devastated Athens in the 5th century B.C., where "no human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, inquiries of oracles and the like, they were utterly useless and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up."
To prevent Canada from being overpowered by such a calamity, we must focus on emergency preparedness and public health as one of the greatest issues of our time. Public health has been ignored for a generation: Now, with the public aroused and politicians finally taking notice, we must get it right.
Second, we must invest in public health capacity on the ground. Thankfully, Minister of Public Health Carolyn Bennett is a doctor and has made a career of distinguishing between measures to increase overall community health (nutrition, inoculation, information) and measures to improve health care (systems innovation, technology, etc.).
She should be asking: How prepared are we at the street level? When I went to school in Winnipeg in the 1950s, I received my first polio shot from a school nurse. How many schools today have school nurses? Almost none. Who will deliver the vaccine to kids and seniors even if we have stockpiled it?
In 5th century B.C. Athens, Thucydides wrote that physicians were the first victims of the plague. David Naylor's report on Canadian SARS in 2003 makes the same point; it is health-care workers who are hit first.
Where do people go who want to help? We need to revitalize the Canadian voluntary movement. We need a comprehensive network of Neighbourhood Watch volunteers. The Canada Corps — lost in CIDA — should become a vehicle to encourage mass volunteerism both at home and abroad
The Prime Minister should call a federal-provincial conference on emergency preparedness and public healthcapacity. Let the public see the real state of preparedness in their community. Citizens will be shocked, but action will follow. Athens' fate in the 5th century B.C. need not be ours in the 21st.