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Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.

Voices / Column

Recipe for pandemic

One third of the world’s population was wiped out in 1918 and 1919 by the avian flu pandemic. Are we headed for another pandemic because of the incarceration of people in the confined spaces of detention centers at our border?

Elayne Clift has written about women, politics, and social-justice issues from the earliest days of this newspaper. For more of her work, visit

Saxtons River

The year was 1918. A virus that some experts think was an avian flu spread so rapidly that in a short time it became the most severe pandemic in recent history.

Worldwide, during 1918 and 1919 it infected an estimated 500 million people. That was a third of the world’s population.

At least 50 million died from the devastating flu globally. Close to 700,000 of those deaths occurred in the United States. Many of them were under the age of 5, although midlife and older adults were also killed by the disease.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of that global pandemic.

There have been other major flu epidemics since the one in 1918. I suffered an avian flu in the 1960s, and I’ve never felt sicker in my life. More recently a flu epidemic in 2017–18 killed about 80,000 people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an influenza pandemic is a global outbreak of a new influenza A virus. Pandemics happen when these viruses emerge. They infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way. (The flu is airborne and thus highly contagious.)

The World Health Organization notes the threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present and a pandemic can arise whenever a new influenza outbreak spreads. “We can never be certain when or from where the next pandemic will arise,” the organization says on its website. “However, another influenza pandemic is inevitable.”

* * *

The question now: Are we headed for another pandemic because of the recklessly cruel incarceration of a growing number of children and adults in the confined spaces of detention centers at our border?

A recent article in The New York Times noted that the key ingredients for an infectious disease outbreak like the flu include the presence of people crammed in small spaces with others who have weakened immune systems, often caused by poor nutrition, stress, and the absence of good hygiene and basic health care.

Those conditions explain why diseases like cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis thrive in refugee camps and prisons.

Now we can add detention centers to the list of vulnerable settings, where communicable diseases are on the rise. Scabies, shingles, lice, mumps, chicken pox, and flu are known to exist in these overcrowded, dirty centers where nutritious food is absent, clean water to drink or wash in is hard to find, and people sleep (or try to do so) on crowded, cold floors.

According to one recent report, 88 people were crammed into a room meant for 41 at one facility and detainees were forced to go for months without a shower or change of clothes. Young children were left “covered in filth for weeks,” as The New York Times decried in an editorial. Seven children died from communicable diseases in facilities in the past two years.

A least three of those deaths were flu-related.

* * *

Immigration authorities are refusing to vaccinate detainees as the flu season approaches, and the lack of soap, toothbrushes, and safe sleeping conditions remain. All of this is particularly outrageous since children are most susceptible to diseases like flu.

Any outbreak of flu will mean that not only the incarcerated become ill and may die. With the rapid intake and slow release of detainees, and with the coming and going of staff and others, the chance of a rapid spread of flu and other illnesses, first throughout local communities and then beyond, increases exponentially. The situation is a recipe for a pandemic.

Flu is not expensive to prevent, and prevention is much easier and more cost-saving than treatment. Yet U.S. Customs and Border Protection insists that a vaccination program in the detention centers is neither feasible nor necessary since the agency’s position is that stays are meant to be short.

* * *

Prophylaxis aside, the inhumanity and irresponsibility of not acting to protect detainees and others boggles the mind.

It is not beyond the pale to suggest that we could see something like the 1918 flu pandemic, or the epidemic of 2018, in no time.

The tragedy of such an event would be compounded by the blame-the-victim mentality now so prevalent in this administration. Denying migrants and asylum seekers basic medical care and then blaming them for bringing disease into the country would be incredibly cruel.

And the cruelty of the Trump administration knows no bounds. There are reports that immigrants and refugees found to be HIV-positive or who have cancer will be deported immediately. It seems airplanes have become America’s cattle cars, which in another time and place carried people to certain death.

As for the rest of the detainees, the Department of Homeland Security plans to hold them indefinitely — with no access to legal counsel. Indefinitely. As in forever.

The violation of human rights is staggering. It should have the U.S. before an international criminal court.

Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

I want to see an end to the evil.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #530 (Wednesday, October 2, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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