Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine 'Flu and Defence

In my last post I asked the crucial question which the forthcoming review of Defence has to answer. What is the $1.6b we spend annually on defence to protect us from?

In my review of Defence the answer was simple: every extrordinary threat to New Zealand. This included outbreaks of contagious human diseases.

This had an annual operational valuation of $217 million. Justified as follows:

Pandemic
The reappearance of the H5N1 bird flu strain is reminding authorities of the damage caused by the so-called Spanish flu in 1918. Government reports have estimated that such a pandemic would cost New Zealand up to one third of its GDP. In a historical context this is not much different to the great plagues of history and may someowhat underestimate the ability of modern medicine to contain the loss.
Treasury has published this report which calculates the possible loss of up to $30 billion in the first year.
The armed services may have a role in a pandemic where public order is called into question and for duties such as mass burials however in general terms such a pandemic is essentially a matter for civilian authorities.

RISK CONTRIBUTION
Loss Potential: 20% of GDP ($31 billion)
Recovery in years: 7
Historical Frequency: 1 in 100 years
Probability in 20 year cycle: 4%
Mitigation value of defence capital: 20%
Estimated loss on occurance: $108 billion
Mitigation risk weighted period value: $4.357 billion
Annual Value: $217 million

The most important line here is the estimated Mitigation value of defence capital: 20%.
This was of course based on the assumption that the Defence force recognised that 14.6% of its task was being prepared and ready to respond to the needs of responding to a Pandemic.

My review therefore put a great deal of emphasis on capital equipment and organisation able to respond to such an emergency. The Support Brigade included a Medical Battalion (one of the few structures retaining part-time staff) while the Operations Brigade included a biohazard Response Company and not forgetting the Emergency Brigade. Naturally the rest of the structure provided the logistics and support necessary to keep such an operation working. It was assumed that most of the staff of the Pandemic unit would be academics or practictioners who would take up their roles in the defence structure as needed.

So far with just 11 cases reaching New Zealand we are a long way from needing such a response capability. Authorities have moved quickly and efficiently to contain the potential spread of contagion. However it must be said that, like SARs before it, the Mexican Swine Flu has not shown any high degree of virulence, and, to date, civilian structures have proved more than capable of responding.

This does not mean, in my view that there is no need for the Defence Force to not be involved in planning and operations of anti-biohazard responses.

It would be nice if the Defence Review recognised the waste of spending so much money on defending our nation against non-existent military threats when there are very real medical and agricultural ones all around us. Any holistic understanding of the term "defence" would surely recognise this at once.