Although it is hard to fathom, we seem to enjoy scaring ourselves.
A quick look at some of the more successful Hollywood blockbusters of the last decade suggests that, for reasons which seem inexplicable, movie goers enjoy the prospect of (fictitious) impending doom: asteroids hurtling towards earth; global warming engulfing the planet; a giant ape wreaking havoc...the list goes on.
But at least when we leave the movie theatre we can have an overwhelming sense of relief: the asteroid isn't headed our way...just yet.
The same may not, however, necessarily be true about an avian influenza pandemic. For months now, we have been told - by both domestic and international authorities - that the occurrence of a pandemic is a question of when, not if.
Some employers have heeded the warnings that have been issued by the Ministry of Health (and other Government agencies) - but a significant number have done little, if any planning at all.
Two weeks ago, however, the Government took a step which serves to indicate that the prospect of a pandemic is real - and that this is a situation in which we should not be leaving the movie theatre with a sense of relief.
Parliament has introduced the Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill. If passed, it will introduce some sweeping changes to various pieces of New Zealand law - all intended to allow for appropriate steps to be taken in the event of a pandemic (particularly an avian influenza outbreak - but also applicable to other situations caused by things such as cholera, plague or yellow fever).
The starting point of the legislation is the introduction of a power for the Prime Minister to issue an "epidemic notice". This notice triggers a range of possible actions - including the following things.
It allows New Zealand to close its borders - enabling quarantine powers to be imposed on such things as incoming aircraft.
It strengthens the powers already given to medical officers of health under the Health Act: these officers have the power to do such things as restrict public meetings and movement - and to take action such as shutting schools.
The new powers allow the Police to assist by enforcing these restrictions.
The new law also streamlines the way in which these powers can be exercised - by, for example, allowing notices to be published in newspapers and on TV and radio. This means that steps to close down our cities and towns can be taken very quickly indeed.
The new law would bring change to the holidays legislation - making it possible for employers to require employees to take annual holidays in the event of a pandemic. This is an important power for an employer - because it allows a workplace to shut down (either because of an order given by medical officer of health - or simply because the practicalities of a pandemic may mean that it is all but impossible for a workplace to function properly).
In a more chilling area, the new law would relax certain parts of the resource management legislation so that consent would not be necessary to establish such things as community treatment centres and mass graves.
Equally daunting is the prospect for doctors and appropriately qualified nurses to issue death certificates without necessarily being able to identify deceased people. This power is necessary to allow for the swift destruction of infected bodies (where identification would otherwise be required).
The proposed legislation would also amend laws in a variety of different areas including:
For any person that had thought that the prospect of a pandemic was unlikely, this new legislation provides some daunting reading.
It illustrates the commitment given by the Government to preparation for avian influenza - and also illustrates the amount of thought that has been given to the consequences that would follow for New Zealand society in the event of consequences not unlike a disaster movie.