Swine Flu: Some Questions of Coverage and Climate Change

Swine Flu: Some Questions of Coverage and Climate Change

May 3, 2009 17:34
by J. Wylie Donald

"If pigs could fly" is used to belittle wishful thinking. If only words could solve a different kind of airborne porcine problem, swine flu, which international airline travel has catapulted to the nation's, and the world's, attention. Two questions relevant to this blog suggest themselves: 1) is this new H1N1 virus a result of climate change, and 2) is there insurance for this sort of thing?

We'll take the easiest question first, is there insurance? It depends. With respect to liability policies, there is nothing to preclude a claim, for example, that inadequate airplane ventilation led to a person's swine flu infection. That could meet the definition of an occurrence and should trigger coverage - unless an exclusion applies. Following the SARS outbreak in 2003, many insurers modified their mold or pollution exclusions to address viruses. Accordingly, close examination of the exclusionary language is in order.

With respect to property and business interruption policies, similar review of the potentially applicable exclusions is also in order. However, it may be the case that those policies are not even triggered, as it is generally the case that there must be physical damage to insured property before coverage is available. Note, however, that the Mandarin Oriental Hotel recovered $16 million on its property policies in connection with the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, apparently as a result of a "contagious disease" rider it purchased.

Now we turn to the more difficult question: is the swine flu pandemic caused by climate change? As many are probably aware, one of the concerns of climate change is that changing temperatures may increase the natural range of tropical illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever as the vectors of these diseases find more environments to their liking. E.g., IPCC, Regional Impacts of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/regional/039.htm.  Additionally, researchers considering the impact of climate change on avian flu ponder whether alterations in bird migration paths will impact the distribution and transmission of the illness. See K. Duncan, Climate change, migratory species and pandemic influenza. Swine flu would seem to be amenable to neither vector nor migration issues. But I would submit, its prevalence and impact on human beings will be exacerbated by climate change. The mantra of medical authority is "wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands." This assumes the availability of water. But, one of the harshest effects of climate change is the increased duration and severity of droughts. See this blog (April 7, 2009). In other words, one of the easiest ways to contain the illness will be unavailable to many individuals.

A review of the countries reporting confirmed cases shows no nations from Africa. The tragedy of Darfur has been attributed to climate change-induced drought. What treatment or prevention will be available there, if the virus touches down, and no one can wash their hands?

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