For SARS Press 1, for Bird Flu Press 2...by Brian McConnell
Editor's Note: In the interest of disseminating this information as widely as possible, the author grants all reprint requests without the need to obtain any further permission as long as the URL of this original article is included. There are two companion articles, Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo and How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry.
I first wrote a draft of this article in the fall of 2004, and have rewritten it several times since. There has been a great deal of reporting about the avian flu (H5N1), and the possibility that it may turn out to be the next great human influenza pandemic. And we should all be planning for it. Nobody knows if (or when) avian influenza will become a human disease or how bad it will be, but the warning signs during the past 24 months have been ominous. If avian flu is as lethal of a human disease as it has been in animals, it could cause a catastrophe.
Fears about a human H5N1 pandemic are justified. Humans have no immunity to this strain, and although human cases are rare, the mortality rate is extremely high (currently more than 50%, although that number is widely believed to be inflated by sampling bias). A highly transmissible and lethal strain would be a worst case scenario, with hundreds of millions of deaths forecast worldwide. If that happens, it will eclipse the worst disasters and world wars of the 20th century.
I fear that we may have only a short time to prepare for this -- I hope I am wrong. However, the warning signs are everywhere. H5N1 has spread to more than 40 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. We can pray to the Goddess of Fortune and hope this threat passes, but we should act now to protect ourselves and our communities in case our luck runs out.
As a gay man, I survived a pandemic and saw firsthand what a lethal and unknown disease looks like. I remember what it was like, before modern antiviral drugs arrived, to walk through neighborhoods full of young men covered with skin cancer or using canes -- most of them were condemned to die. I just assumed I would be dead by the age of 30, rarely thought I would survive, much less avoid infection. One of my friends has been to more than 200 funerals. I don't think most people are psychologically prepared for what we could be about to face. America, in particular, is an antiseptic society where few people besides cancer survivors have confronted a disease that kills people in their youth, much less one that could cause mass death in a period of weeks.
Only future history will tell, but there's a possibility we could be in the final days of a Golden Age where people and freight can cheaply travel half a world in a day. If this pandemic does happen, all of that will likely come to an abrupt end in a matter of days. It will start with the first word of an expanding circle of human cases. There will be a desperate effort to contain the infection, but because people can travel so freely it will almost certainly fail. There will be a few days or weeks of confusion and then probably a nearly instant, global shutdown of travel. Even this will likely be too little, too late. The 1918 Spanish Flu spread to every corner of the globe, even hitchhiking by dogsled to a remote Alaskan village where it killed more than half of its inhabitants.
If this scenario plays out within the next year or so, there will be no vaccine and no treatment, except for a lucky few. Our only option will be to implement strict "social distancing" measures and, in effect, put entire populations under lockdown so that the disease has fewer opportunities to spread from person to person. This will buy time for public health authorities to stockpile treatments and vaccines. Social distancing will play an important role and, indeed, is featured prominently in national preparedness plans such as the one the US government is about to endorse. Even that may not be enough, since forecasts for a pandemic comparable to 1918 range from a few million to hundreds of millions of dead worldwide.
That is what we may be facing. Hopefully, we will get lucky and have a few more years to prepare, but it would be foolish to bank on luck. This article may scare you. It should, because this disease, if it spreads efficiently among people, could kill many millions and cause a worldwide economic disaster. But the point of this article isn't to scare you witless, but rather to scare you into action. I'll describe a few simple and surprisingly inexpensive measures using current information technology that organizations, schools, and businesses can use to continue operating while under quarantine.
Influenza relies on social contact to spread. Because it is so contagious, public health authorities will take aggressive measures to close schools, offices, and other venues where people congregate. These measures may be in effect for extended periods of time. Fortunately, information technology has advanced to the point where we can physically quarantine ourselves, but still interact socially. There are specific measures we can take (in addition to basic hygiene) to limit the spread of disease and to keep society up and running even in a worst-case scenario.
One of the key things we can do is to move in-person congregations and meetings online, creating electronic surrogates for daily social activities such as classes, business meetings, and social outings. Taking these actions will dramatically reduce the amount of contact between people and, therefore, the opportunities for the disease to spread. It may be necessary to close schools, offices, and other public venues for many weeks to allow a local outbreak to burn itself out. This sounds easy, but very few of these organizations have any plans in place to do this and keep functioning, much less the means to implement them.
The two companion pieces to this article, Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo and How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry, describe specific tools that schools, businesses, and public venues can use to create electronic gathering places, at minimal cost, using off-the-shelf computing and networking technology. Some of these strategies cost practically nothing to implement and require only modest amounts of time and computer expertise.
This simple measure of moving physical gatherings online for a few weeks can eliminate many opportunities for the disease to spread, but only if organizations are prepared to implement these measures on a day's notice. Until recently, this was easier said than done because telecommunications services, such as teleconferencing, were notoriously expensive. But this is no longer true.
I'll explain how to build virtual meeting facilities quickly and cheaply, using free, off-the-shelf software and tools. Small organizations will be able to do this virtually for free. Larger organizations, such as universities, can do this for a few dollars per person per month.
With these articles, you will learn how to:
- Build an Internet-based teleconferencing system capable of handling every student in your school or university, at a cost of only a few dollars per student.
- Build large-scale, autonomous teleconferencing and instant messaging systems so that you can continue classes and meetings, even if your entire facility is closed for weeks at a time.
- Upgrade or jury-rig your business telephone system so that your call center employees can telecommute from home.
- Create electronic surrogates for real-world gathering places, so that people who are physically quarantined or under curfew can freely socialize with people online.
- Some practical tips for prioritizing and triaging critical business functions, so that you can focus on essential business and maintain some sense of normalcy, even if half your workforce is out sick.
The time to think about building these plans is now. In most cases, you will need two to three months to sort through the details, such as finding spare computer hardware, finding a local ISP that can host your equipment for you, and finding a computer expert who is able to build and manage the systems described in the companion articles. Nobody is going to build these tools for you, and if the pandemic does happen, you cannot rely on other companies to outsource this work for you. They'll be busy tending to their own problems and existing customers.
My company, Open Communication Systems, is publishing detailed technical instructions about how to build these systems, including directions about where to find tools, pre-built example configurations, and pointers to articles and books that will guide you in building these facilities. You can find some of these instructions in the companion articles, Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo and How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry.
Brian McConnell is an inventor, author, and serial telecom entrepreneur. He has founded three telecom startups since moving to California. The most recent, Open Communication Systems, designs cutting-edge telecom applications based on open standards telephony technology.
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