Thursday, October 29, 2009

Truckers and flu

As noted in Land Line’s daily news, the White House, DOT and Centers for Disease Control are advising drivers how to try to keep the flu out of your rig – and presumably your home, your body and your loved ones.

Here’s my advice: Do it.

Health risks aside – and these may range from mild to serious, depending on how healthy you are to start with and perhaps how old you are – there’s a very practical, and powerful, economic reason for wanting to keep truckers and others in the nation’s transportation industry healthy.

In “The Great Influenza,” published in 2004, historian John M. Barry notes that today’s system of just-in-time delivery means that a significant drop in the transportation system’s capacity could ripple across the entire economy.

Writing about the 1918-19 flu that killed at least 650,000 people in America and sickened or even crippled millions more, he notes that many localities ran out of coffins for the dead.

Barry said the average time in 1968 between manufacture and use for coffins was five months; now, it’s about three and a half weeks. If H1N1 were to mutate into a far more lethal strain – as the 1918 flu did from a milder strain that hit that spring – some communities could run out of coffins.

Think also about the impact on produce and fresh food shipments. Anyone who has seen a stack of produce wilting on a dock because there was no truck to carry it can well imagine what that would look like multiplied many times.

Of course, it’s not just truckers. A serious pandemic could sideline people at every level of commerce for perhaps weeks at a time.

In a white paper for MIT’s Engineering Systems Division updated this past July, Barry extends that example to other critically needed medical supplies:

“Just-in-time, of course, discourages stockpiling supplies, not only for health care – and not just antibiotics but also syringes, gowns, gloves, and so on – but also for businesses. A mild pandemic could well infect the same proportion of the population as a severe one, and some workers would stay home to care for sick family members; this could easily cause peak absenteeism in the 20 percent or higher range for a week or more.

“This could ripple through the economy and create major bottlenecks.”

We don’t know if this flu will be the one that morphs into a serious killer. Plain old flu is bad enough, killing far more people each year in America than AIDS does, according to Barry. But it’s showing some eerie similarities to the 1918 virus. So keep the hand gel handy, try to stay out of crowds, and wash your hands.