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H1N1 Flu as System Perturbation

As we observe the spread of the H1N1 Flu (and keep our hand sanitizers at the ready), it’s important to think about the outbreak from the perspective of system perturbation. Though H1N1 Flu is an act of nature, there are valuable lessons we can impart to our understanding of modern conflict through an examination of its systemic effects. Modern warfare is distinguished by its systemic scope. Actors don’t just try to gain positional advantage over each other through a series of linear jousts–they try to alter the underlying logic of the political, economic, and normative systems that order world politics. Foreign policy grand strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett is emphatic about this point, arguing in his paper “System Perturbation: Conflict in the Age of Globalization” that the September 11 attacks’ effects went far beyond the physical damage inflicted on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon:

“[A] system perturbation is like a giant stone dropped into a calm pond. The initial vertical shock is spectacular, but the resulting horizontal ripples have even wider spread and longer lasting effects. Let’s again examine 9/11 and its aftermath. In one morning, a series of relatively simple terrorist acts set in motion a system perturbation that has not only rearranged our sense of national security, but redirected our nation’s foreign policy and recast states’ relationships with one another — all over the world. Much of this change will be temporary, but some changes will be permanent, generating path-dependencies that nation-states will have to deal with for decades to come. The key point is this: the strategic environment is in flux for some indeterminate period of time. That is the essence of system perturbation — as it unfolds, all bets are off. The old rule set evaporates, the new one is not yet gelled. Both direct and sympathetic ripples spread horizontally from the perturbation.”

      Is the current influenza outbreak a system perturbation? It’s too early to tell whether it will decisively change state relationships, economic systems, or normative frameworks. Arherring is persuasive when he states that the H1N1 Flu isn’t likely to have the truly systemic effect that the Bird Flu threatened, but we can already observe several systemic outcomes related to the H1N1 Flu emerging.
      For one, we may be witnessing what the Ushahidi blog predicts could be an collaborative “ecosystem for emergency and disaster information.” Crowdsourcing applications and websites like Ushahidi, InSTEDD, Wikia, and Google Maps help make sense of raw data and facilitate positive collaboration between general users, subject-matter experts, and social media developers. Despite the media backlash against Twitter,  crowdsourced aggregation, visualization, and collaborative tools are gaining greater legitimacy as capabilities mature and user participation reaches a critical mass. These tools are also helping to beat back the “infodemic” fostered by largely sensationalist mainstream media reporting.
      Mexico’s image has also taken a severe battering. Already portrayed in international media as a warzone riven by cartel violence, Mexico’s status as a possible origin point of the influenza is likely to have adverse public relations and economic effects long after the influenza outbreak extinguishes itself. Non-essential services in Mexico have currently ceased and 168 have already died from flu-like symptoms. China experienced similar embarrassment after the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2006 Avian Flu outbreak, spurring calls for healthcare and governance reforms. Many international actors perceived the reforms that resulted as effective. By the time the 2008 Olympics rolled around, Avian Flu was a distant memory. As an Associated Press story notes, Mexico will likely face a similar pressure for reform because of its lackluster response to the outbreak:

“[The flu] was neither caught quickly nor treated properly in the early days in Mexico, which lacked the capacity to identify the virus, and whose health care system has become the target of widespread anger and distrust. In case after case, patients have complained of being misdiagnosed, turned away by doctors and denied access to drugs.

      Perhaps the H1N1 Flu may prove the catalyst for change in the Mexican political system–or not. But both the emergence of a crowdsourced emergency information ecosystem and the damage to Mexico’s image are useful illustrations of the systemic effects that a single transformative event can potentially create. Neither effect was caused solely by the H1N1 Flu–crowdsourced disaster collaboration tools were in use during the 2008 election violence in Kenya and Mexico’s image had already degraded substantially due to the cartel violence–but the outbreak provided an powerful impetus.