Imagine that bird flu hits the United States, and you’re a doctor at a hospital filled with 700 infected patients who all need ventilators to help them breathe. You have 100 ventilators. How do you allocate them? To the sickest? the youngest? the oldest? the most likely to live? the ones most likely to die without one?
The choices would be unthinkable, as Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum have suggested. We should be doing much more to avoid them, or at least make them less stark. But as this article from the NYT shows, we are instead doing very little:
Right now, there are 105,000 ventilators, and even during a regular flu season, about 100,000 are in use. In a worst-case human pandemic, according to the national preparedness plan issued by President Bush in November, the country would need as many as 742,500. To some experts, the ventilator shortage is the most glaring example of the country’s lack of readiness for a pandemic.
Now aren’t you happy that market forces got rid of all that “excess hospital capacity” in the 80s and 90s? According to one doctor from the Mayo Medical School, “Families are going to be told, ‘We have to take your loved one off the ventilator even though, if we could keep him on it for a week, he might be fine.’”
Given various budgetary crises, we can’t expect much help from government. Is there any creative solution? I’d like to suggest one: Let individuals buy ventilators to dedicate for themselves and their families (at nearby hospitals), in exchange for their donation of one ventilator for each one they dedicate. Here’s some “figures”….