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Avian Flu in Asia

An Agriculture Ministry worker sprays disinfectant at cages at a bird farm in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Sept. 26, 2005. (quiplash/flickr)

An Agriculture Ministry worker sprays disinfectant at cages at a bird farm in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Sept. 26, 2005. (quiplash/flickr)

Donald G. Ainslie: Yes, I think a lot of discussion has been taken place. We've been working on this since December 2004. There has been a lot of discussion about what is avian influenza, what is bird flu, and my god, there is 50 million people could die and there are all those reports that 300 million people could die. Part of the problem that we have is that there is too much discussion going on trying to quantify the likelihood of this event occurring. And I think we need to get passed that discussion and start the planning because the reality is that there is a high risk. If the high risk is 1 percent or 3 percent, I consider that high because the impact that would have to the global economy would obviously be significant. You talk about international trade; that would essentially shut down. There would be shortages of food medicines. The whole health care system that we have in these countries in the U.S. and others would be swamped and overwhelmed. So I think it is important considering the magnitude and the impact that could have on us from a personal standpoint and from a business standpoint is to get passed those discussions and start the planning. What I try to tell folks, we are made up of multiple partnerships and about eighty different partnerships in one partnership. We are in about 150 countries, and so it is a monumental task here. But it is important that we start to really look at planning and how we can get a really fundamental base. We have a lot of organizations that put together large plans that are 150 or 200 pages. We need to make it really simple—some blocking and tackling. Let's face and address the basics: What do you do with stranded employees? We have fifteen to twenty-five thousand people that travel any given day on a plane, remotely, or on site with a client. So if there is going to be a boarder closure, how are we going to get those people out or how are we going to support them? And we know that there are cases in the Ukraine and cases in Romania where they actually quarantined a city there just based on incidences in birds, where they actually brought in constantina wire and soldiers not allowing individuals to go in and out. They realize they overreacted there, but that is just the case of it being in birds. We also know that in June of this last year there was a cluster in Indonesia where there was numerous mutations, person to person, about eight or nine people there. That was actually identified by a Bloomberg reporter not by the World Health Organization. But the interesting thing is that this is happening in June. I happen to have a meeting in Singapore taking place with 400 of my partners there. And I am thinking to myself, the World Health Organization, I have gotten word, is considering raising it to three to four. If they go to four, we know certain governments have already stipulated that they would shut boarders down immediately, and this is before pandemic. We know there are certain companies that have stated that they will start to evacuate their ex-pats. There I am with 400 or so partners in Singapore. Fortunately, I had a contingency plan in place, where I had some aircraft available, just in case I needed to get them out because what would happen is that the airline would be overloaded. The point here is that I can go through a number of other instances, is that we need to make it very basic and very simple and not a big book. We need to educate our people. We have put together an e-learning module that really kind of educates our individuals, partners, and practitioners, and what they need to do from a personal standpoint because at the end of the day, it is going to come down to that individual taking care of his or her family, whether they are going to come to the office or not. You also need to have HR policies in place that are modified that allow that individual to make that decision so that they can feel comfortable in not coming to the office so that they are not going to get laid off. So you also have strategies in place. You have strategies in place that allow from a technology standpoint that people can still serve clients, bill clients, and do that all from the home. One of the things we are concerned about is the fact that everybody talks about working remotely everywhere. Now what is the capacity of the internet? Nobody knows that. What is the ability of the ISPs when we have 30 to 50 percent of the workforce not going to show up because that is what we are being told out of fear to taking care of their family members, that ISP can't get you to the backbone or can't get you to the internet. There are some things that you can plan. There are assumptions that you got to make: If the internet is not there, you have bigger problems.

Elisabeth Rosenthal: How about the international perspective and global security issue.

Andrew Erickson: Absolutely, first of all I would like to thank the Asia Society for this opportunity. It is a wonderful chance and a very important issue that really affects us all. Before saying anything further, I better state the usual disclaimer that what I am going to say is solely my personal opinion and does not represent the policy or analyses of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or any other branch of the U.S. Government. That being said, I would like to discuss a few things that give me optimism. This is being taken very seriously at all levels of the U.S. Government and other governments. Measures have already been taken that are moving us ahead here. As many of you know in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has overall responsibility for issues involving a possible pandemic of Avian Influenza. The department of Health and Human Services handles domestic efforts and medical issues. The State Department handles public diplomacy and would be involved extensively in international issues. The department of Agriculture handles animal related issues. Now that said, the U.S. pacific command I think also has an important role to play here, partially because of its scope of operations. It has under the hospices of the U.S. Pacific Command; there are roughly 300,000 troops in the Asia Pacific region. Five out of seven of the U.S. mutual defense treaties are in that region. 35 percent of U.S. trade or over 550 billion dollars goes through that region. So clearly the possibility of an outbreak of Avian Influenza or related issues is being taken very seriously in the U.S. pacific command. I would like to call your attention to a landmark speech that our chief of naval operations, Admiral Michael Mullen, made at the U.S. Naval War College on September 21, 2005. It certainly got my attention at the time. The quote I would most like to share with you is when the Admiral said, 'In today's interconnected world, acting in the global interest is likely to mean acting in one's national interest as well. Exercising sovereignty and contributing global security are no longer mutually exclusive events.' I think this is a key concept for us to understand in the 21st century, and that is why I was so happy to also hear this sentiment echoed by PRC [People's Republic of China] Vice Foreign Minister, when he said that our destinies are interconnected. In the fight against Avian Influenza, no country can stay safe by looking the other way. I know that time is short in this panel, so I won't go into all the initiatives, but I think if you look at what the U.S. Pacific Command has done to prepare, the signs are extremely encouraging. In October 2005, U.S. Pacific Commander sponsored a public health emergency, officer influenza seminar. Pacific Command continues to discuss and shares plenty of ideas with foreign governments and military leaders in ASEAN, Chiefs of Defense, or COD meetings, and also operations planning meetings concerning non-combatant evacuations. I can go into a little more detail on some of these, but these are some of things that make me think people are getting this. And yes there is the possibility to plan; there is the possibility to prepare. We need to build on this but we have already started, and I think it is encouraging. We can't afford to do less.

Elisabeth: Thank you. I think I would like to ask all the panelists a question. We are all here in New York—a center of the developed world. We hear about governments, companies, on millions if not billions to buy drugs to prepare their citizens for the event of a possible pandemic. Are we doing enough for the poorer parts of South East Asia, which are having particularly serious problems with the bird flu now? When I trained in medicine, we always said that prevention is better than treatment as the most effective treatment. Compared to the money that goes into preparedness in the developed world, very little is going into try and address this disease in animals in places like Indonesia where it has become a significant and very out of control problem.